“The power to grant pardons and clemency is one of the most profound authorities granted to the President of the United States. It embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance.”
–President Barack Obama, January 19, 2017
It’s not every day you get a letter from a sitting President of the United States, giving you a second chance at life. But then, not everyone gets lost in the darkness of the streets and not everyone begins using his voice and leadership while still in prison to lead others into the light. In the words sung by then-President Barack Obama in the hallowed sanctuary of the Mother Emanuel AME Church, “I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind, but now I see.”
This is Deon’s story.
* * * *
Deon grew up in the suburbs of Charleston, South Carolina, a few short miles from Magnolia Plantation, a thriving tourist attraction where his direct ancestors were once enslaved. His street was populated by extended family, and in his house were packed his grandmother, granddaddy, mother, sister, auntie, and two cousins. “We made do,” he says. “We always had food and clothes.” Deon’s auntie used WIC to buy groceries while his mother, a phlebotomist at the American Red Cross, paid other bills. One of his uncles on the street was an electrician. Another was a plumber. They all took care of each other.
After school each day, all the kids piled into Deon’s house, and his grandmother cooked giant bags of French fries and eight-packs of hot dogs for all of them. Afternoons were spent riding bikes and playing games outside.
Sounds idyllic, right? It wasn’t, at least not for Deon.
“I’ve experienced pain all my life,” he says. He was diagnosed with sickle cell when he was eight months old. The blood disorder creates sickle-shaped red blood cells that get caught up in veins and arteries, causing inflammation and debilitating pain. In the 1980s, when Deon was young, the life expectancy for a child with sickle cell was only 25 years.
It’s a lot of baggage for a little boy who only wanted to grow up to join the Army.
He found marijuana at a young age. Some of his older cousins smoked, and they showed him how to sell just enough to keep smoking for free. Deon still had dreams, though, of working a regular job and having a normal life. He got a part time job at McDonalds when he was 14 and was crushing it until he had a sickle cell flare up. He was in the hospital for two weeks, and he came back to find his hours cut drastically. “They told me they didn’t want to make me sick. It was a blow,” he says. “I thought I had potential.”
The cycle repeated itself in quick succession. “All the jobs sucked after I’d get sick,” he says. “But I noticed when I was selling drugs, if I got sick, people were looking for me, and when I get well, they were happy to see me.”
So Deon went all in on dealing, hollowing out textbooks to hide and sell weed at school. That backfired on the last day before winter break of his freshman year. A friend was forced to turn him in, and he was hauled out of class and brought to the principal’s office. He tried to hide the drugs he’d stashed under his belt, but the game was up. He was arrested, taken out of the building in handcuffs while the rest of the kids were leaving for the holidays.
Determined not to let her son’s academic career flounder, Deon’s mother enrolled him at the Henry P. Archer School for the rest of the school year. Built in the 1930s as a school for Black students during Jim Crow, by the 1980s Archer was, in Deon’s words, “a mosh pit of people who got kicked out of school from everywhere. Archer was my first taste of jail.” There were stabbings despite metal detectors at the entrances. Fights were daily occurrences. Even now, over 20 years later, Deon gets visibly uncomfortable talking about Archer School.
The next year he went back to his regular school, academically behind and with a bad reputation. “I wanted to better myself,” he says. “But how? I tried so many jobs, but the streets were always easier.” He got deeper and deeper into the life, first selling cocaine at college parties, then, eventually, guns and crack.
By his side, always, was his younger cousin. The two were more like brothers; they grew up in the same room, shared the same bed. It was his cousin who told Deon how much money they could make selling crack. At first Deon was resistant. “I didn’t want to sell that. Those guys go around with rocks in their hands, looking crazy. Some of them even have rocks in their mouths.” The money was too good to pass up, though. “We would drive into a neighborhood and get a line of thirty people who would come to the car. It’s crazy.”
It was an endless party…until the party ended.
First, in 2003, Deon’s cousin killed himself. “I just thought, if his life is that destructive, what’s my life, if he’s mimicking me?”
Deon spiraled into depression, praying for guidance. He stopped selling drugs, trying to leave that world behind, but he didn’t change his expensive lifestyle. When his live-in girlfriend told him they were out of cash, he fell right back into his own ways. It wasn’t right, though. He still wanted out. “I prayed to God to take me out of this. I can’t do it anymore.”
Soon after, police kicked in the door to his townhouse. He should have been killed; he was armed when they found him. But he wasn’t. He was sentenced to 25 years instead.
His prayers were answered, but he didn’t know it yet. For a long while, things would only get harder.
Deon’s first stop was Estill Federal Correctional Institution, a medium/high security prison where violence is as much a part of the landscape as barbed wire. “I left the streets to go right back to the streets of prison,” he says. “I was selling drugs in the first month.”
It seemed like business as usual, until suddenly it wasn’t. One day he was playing cards in the yard when a handball game devolved into a fight. One man stabbed another with a knife pulled from his bag.
“We’ve got to break this up,” Deon said to the guys around him. “But they told me, ‘You don’t see nothing. You don’t hear nothing. Keep playing cards. Focus on the table.’ I watched the dude walk away, bleeding, and nobody helped him. And I just thought, this is vicious. It was worse than on the streets. In the streets, you see people shooting each other, but if someone’s shot, they always call for help. There’s hood, and then there’s Estill.”
A sickle cell flare up landed Deon in the hospital for two weeks, and Estill officials decided keeping Deon was too dangerous (and expensive – he was “property” of the Bureau of Prisons, and as such, Estill had to foot the hospital bill). They transferred him to Butner, a lower security facility in North Carolina. It was the first time sickle cell helped Deon, ever.
Things still wouldn’t be easy, though. The atmosphere was more relaxed, but he was still in the game, selling drugs, making wine, and running card games.
And then his beloved granddaddy died. “He told me before I went in that he didn’t do prisons,” says Deon. “So when he called me and told me it was time for him to come see me, I knew he was dying. When he died, it broke me all over again.”
Deon went back to praying. He found mentors, other men who were willing to extend a hand back down the ladder to pull Deon up out of the darkness. The first was a man who told him: “You’re a good leader. People listen to you. They follow you. You’re just playing for the wrong team.”
The second was a preacher who practiced what he preached. “He taught me to love people and care for people no matter what,” Deon says. “He didn’t judge people, so how could I?”
Deon’s life started transforming. “The last two years were a very deep spiritual journey for me,” he says. “I was finding myself by helping other people.” He took on responsibilities in the prison, working as a photographer for the warden and running various enrichment programs for other incarcerated men. He became a guy to depend on for help and kindness, rather than for drugs.
When President Obama began granting clemency to incarcerated people of color in an attempt to make up for racism in the criminal justice system, prison staff and inmates were behind him, but Deon was denied three times. All hope seemed lost, but Deon and his mentor had time for one last shot. They wrote a final petition as President Obama began his final year in office. They told the President about Deon’s life. Sickle cell. The endless cycle of going-nowhere jobs and hospital stays. The streets, yes, but also how he’d turned his life around. They talked about the work he did in the prison system, helping others, reaching his own hand back down to find ways to change the lives of the men around him. They told him how much Deon wanted to contribute to the world.
On January 19, 2017, he received the letter. “I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong and change your life for the better,” the President said. Prison staff and fellow inmates cheered. Deon would soon be free.
He met Turning Leaf founder, Amy Barch, at the halfway house in North Charleston. “I didn’t hear her speak,” he says. “I heard her heart.” He knew he had to be a part of her program.
“Turning Leaf was a reinforcement of the work I’d been doing those last two years,” he says. “Coming home is different than prison life. Turning Leaf taught me how to adapt. It was a safe space. I could always talk to Justin. I could always get the help I needed.”
Deon graduated in 2017. He worked for a print shop before starting his own screen-printing business. He’s married now and planning to have children. He’s home every night instead of in prison or running the streets. And this summer, he’s reaching that hand back down again. Deon is joining the Turning Leaf team as the Classroom Facilitator for our Columbia center. “When I was in the program, Amy taught the classes,” he says. “Joe taught the classes. Justin taught the classes. Now I’m going to be teaching the classes. I still can’t believe it.”
Soon he’ll help men coming home from prison find their own path to success. He’ll do exactly what President Obama knew he could.
Congratulations, Deon, on how far you’ve come. We know you’re going to change the world.
When is a “debt to society” fully paid? When can we move beyond the choices made by a child to see that, maybe, their “choices” were inevitable?
Stephen spent upwards of 23 years in prison. He was inside for most of his 20s, all his 30s, and a lot of his 40s as well. He doesn’t deny the necessity of that time. He doesn’t make excuses for the crimes he committed, nor does he downplay them. He did bad things. He knows it.
But today, even now, this Turning Leaf graduate is dealing with the consequences of those actions. He was just let go from a job at which he was excelling after failing a background check. His crimes were committed two decades ago.
This is Stephen’s story.
* * * *
To understand Stephen’s story, you need to know the setting. Stephen was born in 1973 in Overtown, a historic district in Miami that was known as Colored Town during Jim Crow. One of the oldest Black settlements in the country, it was once a thriving part of the city. Visionaries like Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Cab Calloway stayed in Overtown when playing in Miami. They couldn’t stay in white districts.
Overtown had its own theater – the Lyric – and a vibrant social and economic lifestyle. Good Bread Alley, with its well-kept row houses and bakeries, was the yeast-scented hub of the neighborhood.
But by the time Stephen was born Overtown was, in his words, a ghetto. He lived in a 2-bedroom garden apartment just outside the “official” neighborhood projects. Behind his apartment was an empty lot where they’d throw bottles and cans. Nearby stood an empty field where they kept stolen cars. And, as he says, “A ghetto is a ghetto. It doesn’t matter how high the apartment is. The neighborhood is just as rough.”
“Growing up in Overtown was never scary, though,” he says. “You see so much violence and death and everything every day. It’s everywhere you go.”
One memory sticks out. Stephen was 11 or 12, walking through the projects at night. “In the projects they shoot out all the lights and you’ve got trees everywhere. It’s dark. If you really don’t live there, you shouldn’t walk through the projects,” he says. “Guys sit in the dark, and in the little bit of light they can see you coming. They say, when they see you, ‘Oh, that’s what’s-his-name coming through.’ They know. But in the middle of the projects, it gets real, real dark.”
That night, in the distance, a door opened. “There was light from the door,” he says. “I see this lady, for a brief moment, and then this dude shot her, right in the head. Boom. I heard the gunshot. But I didn’t even really know she was shot until the ambulance came and put a sheet over the body.”
Just another night in Overtown.
On some levels, Stephen knew he had it better than others. They weren’t in the projects, after all. Their apartment was decent, and although he was the youngest of nine children (six boys and three girls), the older siblings were encouraged to move out as soon as possible, which helped with overcrowding. His mom cleaned houses for rich Miami families. She’d bring home bags of designer hand-me-downs for the children, many of which still had tags. While the kids in Stephen’s class wore Converse All Stars and corduroy pants, he was in Izod and Polo. When he complained to his mother about dressing different, she asked how the girls treated him.
“I said, ‘They love me,’ and she said, ‘Well, there you go. If it’s a woman you want to impress, a guy has to know how to dress.’” That was the end of that discussion.
Stephen’s father was a longshoreman, gone from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. Together his parents made enough money. They could have moved out of Overtown had they chosen to. Instead they stayed. Their neighborhood was historic, inexpensive, and everything they needed was within walking distance. “My mother never drove a car in her life,” says Stephen.
Unlike the majority of their classmates, Stephen and his siblings didn’t qualify for free school lunch. And while his father was liberal and generous with Stephen’s sisters, Stephen had a different experience. “One day, I asked my father for some money,” Stephen says. “He’s like, ‘I’ll be glad when you get older and can take care of yourself.’ I was eight years old.”
That stuck with Stephen. Already a bit of a wild child, he became fiercely independent.
Stephen committed his first robbery when he was nine years old. Yes, that’s correct. Nine. While other boys his age were playing He-Man and GI Joe, he and his fourteen-year-old godbrother robbed a Circle K. From there, all bets were off. Stephen was running the streets, dealing drugs, robbing. He fit in with his brothers; they were already doing the same. “I didn’t have to go in the streets to get the drugs to sell,” he says. They were right there in his own apartment.
“I got a lot of beatings,” he says. By the time he was eleven his mother was so frustrated with his behavior – staying out all night, selling drugs, robbing – that she moved him into an efficiency across the street from their apartment. He lived in that room, alone, while his mother kept watch from afar to make sure he went to school every day.
Which he did. He liked school. He sold drugs there. “I made a lot of money at school,” he says, laughing. “It was the 70s, you know? Still a little like hippie days. We were all smoking dollar joints.”
He did his schoolwork, often during quiet points of a night on the streets, even if he didn’t make it to class. Sometimes he had his sister turn in the work for him. He made Bs and Cs, mostly, with an occasional A.
At school Stephen was well-known for his generosity. “Sometimes the school would call my mother,” he says, “saying, ‘do you know this boy got thousands of dollars in his pocket?’” He used the money to take are of everyone around him. “I’d buy my sisters lunch and treats for everyone else. It was like, I’d see chocolate chip cookies, and I’d say, ‘Gimme all them cookies right there. I want every last one of them.’”
When he was twelve he bought a car from a local dealership for a thousand dollars and drove himself to see his grandparents in Harleyville, South Carolina. He didn’t know the way, couldn’t even see over the steering wheel, but he made it.
Stephen’s first arrest came in 1985. He was twelve, selling crack on the street one evening, when he saw police watching him. “The dude I was serving didn’t see them. He was trying to pick what crack he wanted,” Stephen says. He rushed the guy along, pointing out the cops. “He put his little four rocks in his mouth and we both ran.”
Stephen knew if he could make it to the projects he’d be safe. They had him in their net, but he escaped.
They caught him a day or two later at his mother’s house. He had a pocketful of cash, and they pinned a lot of other things on him, too. “They found a big old bag of crack that was not mine,” says Stephen. “And a couple of pounds of marijuana that was not mine…and about a half a kilo of cocaine which wasn’t mine.” The judge tried to throw the book at him, but a technicality with a gun’s serial number got him released instead. Stephen, still only thirteen, asked the judge if he’d get his pocketful of confiscated cash back. The judge told him he could sue for its return, to which Stephen replied, “Don’t worry, I’ll just get more on the streets.” The judge threw him out of the courtroom.
“And that,” says Stephen, “was the last time I sold drugs. From then on I had people working for me.”
Throughout his teens he lived in Florida and South Carolina, hustling, with a staff of dealers working for him. In 1993 he went to prison for trafficking cocaine and was released in 1994. His first real stay in prison came in 1996 when he served four years for assault and battery with intent to kill. His mother died while he was inside. He wasn’t able to attend her funeral.
But, he says, “I never stopped hustling in prison.” When he got out in 2000, he went right back to robbing. This time it was grocery stores, jewelry stores, and even banks. The only thing he knew, and the most unsustainable life imaginable.
By 2001 he was back in prison on racketeering and armed robbery charges. He served 18 and a half years of a 20-year sentence. This time it was his father and his grandfather who passed away while he was inside. Stephen finally realized things needed to change.
“Prison doesn’t rehabilitate you,” he says. “You got to rehabilitate yourself.”
He enrolled in every program that came along, from janitorial certifications to culinary arts. He worked with two women in the kitchen who had a big impact on him, teaching him how to cook while imparting him life lessons. “They told me, ‘Don’t be scared. Sometimes you’re going to mess up, even in life,’” he says.
Stephen found Turning Leaf through a friend at the halfway house after his release. At 48 years old, he’d missed so much of his life, he knew he could never go back to prison. As soon as he got here, he knew he wanted to stay. To learn. To change.
“I learned a lot from Joe,” he says. Joe was the Classroom Facilitator at the time. “He taught me how to deal with pride, and about the Man Box and how to get out of it. Society tells us what we think a man should and shouldn’t be. It’s not always right.”
He also learned the difference, as he puts it, “between a citizen of a community and someone like me, doing crime. I shouldn’t expect a person that’s a law-abiding citizen to feel and think the way I do.”
“Turning Leaf is like a family,” he says. “Growing up, everybody loved me. I was always loved. When I had all the money I shared it with everybody, but then, in my time of need, I never had anybody there for me. Until Turning Leaf. In my time of need, they supported me. They said, ‘Okay, man, we’re gonna give you all the tools to succeed.’ They helped me find the path out.”
After graduating Stephen was hired by a global company pending his background approval. He was crushing it at work and his manager loved him. But the background check went deep and found the extent of his crimes, so he was let go. His manager fought for him but was overruled. “It was big for me, to have a GM fight for me the way he did,” says Stephen. “He let me know I was doing the right thing. He told me I could call him anytime.”
“But it makes me wonder. Even with all the time I did, when will I have paid my debt to society. I feel like no matter how much time you did and how hard you worked to rectify the situation, you’re still in debt.”
“I was young and made wrong choices. But I did my time. When will it be enough?”
* * * *
At Turning Leaf, we believe it’s more than enough already. He’s back with us while we work to find another job placement. We will never turn our back on you, Stephen. Like you said, Turning Leaf is family, and we’re your family now.
At 24 years old, Alizé is younger than most of the guys we see at Turning Leaf. A lot of times, guys younger than 25 struggle with the program. They’re youthful, still impulsive, and not quite ready to say goodbye to the streets.
It’s different for Alizé, though. A quiet man with a polite smile and a “yes, ma’am” from beneath his mask in the hallways, it’s taken me a minute to get to know him. But in the classroom, he’s a calming force, always doing what’s asked and more. He’s been to prison and come out on the other side determined to be a better example for the two people who matter most: his little brother and sister.
This is Alizé’s story.
* * * *
Alizé grew up in North Charleston. He knew his dad a little but didn’t actually spend time with him. It was just Alizé and his mother and then, after a few years, his little sister, and a little brother a few years after that. They lived with his grandmother, but Alizé knew his mother wanted a place of their own.
The most positive role model in his life was Alizé’s granddaddy, who had his own story. “My granddaddy was a bootlegger,” he says. “A liquor man. You come over there, you buy liquor, buy cigarettes, blunts, cigars. Candies and chips. He had a little bit of hustle.” He had diabetes, and was an amputee which, according to Alizé, kept him from “straight” work for the rest of his life. So while he was loving and cared for Alizé, he wasn’t exactly modeling great behavior for a little kid desperate to help his mama out.
“I was trying to be the man of the house,” says Alizé. “I was looking up to the wrong people, not listening to my mama. Seeing her struggle, I wanted to help, but I was too young. The only way I could see to help was to go out and try to hustle.”
He was 11 years old the first time he smoked marijuana. He’d grown up watching his cousins and other guys in his neighborhood. “I had a lot of family tied up in different things,” he says. “I didn’t have a real father figure so when I went outside I was trying to run around and be like my older cousins. And instead of pulling me on a different path, they put it in my hands.”
At 12, Alizé was dealing. He says, “My mama stayed on me as much as she could, but there’s only so much she could do. She had to worry about my brother and sister.” He was trying to help, but now he knows, “even though I was helping her financially, I was hurting her mentally and emotionally. She knew what I was out there doing.”
He stayed in school until the 9th grade when he was expelled for truancy and fighting. He was full-fledged in the street life from then on. “I might be up all night and sleep all morning,” he says. “I’d get up late – about one or two o’clock – with a bunch of missed calls. I’d catch up, go make plays. I’d make sure my gun was with me all the time no matter where I’d go.”
He’s had to use the gun but doesn’t like to speak about it. It was an integral part of him, though. A piece that could literally never be left behind. “Once you get a little bit of money,” he says, “people get jealous and they might try to rob you. Or somebody might have a problem with someone in my clique, or they might see me and try to get at me. The gun is mandatory. You gotta keep it on you.”
Somehow Alizé stayed out of trouble with police until he was twenty, when the feds caught him on a drug trafficking with possession of a firearm charge. “I had a feeling about the informant I served when I did it,” he says. “But they waited so long to get me.” The sale went down in 2016 but they didn’t arrest Alizé until October of 2017.
That day, he was with his granddaddy, helping to take care of the older man. “I got up early that morning to go over there, get him up, wash him, fix him something to eat and get him together,” says Alizé. His granddaddy knew what he was doing with his life and didn’t approve, but that morning Alizé was in the back room anyway, sealing up some dope, getting ready to make a play. Suddenly, he says, his grandfather called, “’Man! Man!’ He called me Man. ‘The police are outside,’ he said.” Alizé thought they were just riding past, that his granddaddy was exaggerating. “But when I looked out the window, I saw the FBI and the sheriff’s office, and I knew they can’t be here for my granddad.”
They weren’t. The feds had finally caught Alizé.
He sat in county for about 15 months before pleading out to a five year sentence. “Prison and jail are different things,” he says. “In jail I was more laid back. I knew a lot of people there. I was just waiting, trying to see if I’m going home or if I’m going up the road.”
“In prison,” he continues, “you can’t let nobody think you’re soft or try to play with you in any type of way. You have to stand your ground.”
He was part of a race riot early in his prison stay. Blacks and whites fought each other, and while a lot of people “got messed up,” Alizé came away unscathed.
Eventually, he settled in and realized it was time to make a change. “I got in good with a couple of older dudes, trying to point me in the right direction. To calm me down. I’ve been really getting into the word of God,” he says. “I’ve been reading the Bible a lot.” He got a job in the movie room and found a way to be his laid back self again, just trying to stay out of the way.
His granddaddy died while he was still in prison. It was hard, but Alizé believes he’s in a better place now.
When Alizé was released from prison to finish his sentence in a halfway house, he knew he wanted something different. “I wanted to see a change in my life,” he says. “My sister is 17 and my brother is 12. They look up to me and, you know, my little brother, he’s been looking up to me for the wrong reasons. I’d like to see it rub off on him now that I’m back and things are better. Because he’s 12, and that’s the age I was when I got started. I can see him wanting to do things like that so I really need to set a good example for him. I don’t want him going down that path.”
“I also want to make a good life for myself,” he adds. “I want to have a family, a wife and kids, and I don’t want to be back and forth in jail for the rest of my life.”
It’s a great motivator for Alizé, as is Turning Leaf. His case manager at the halfway house told him about the program shortly after he arrived, and he called the next day. While the classroom was overwhelming at first (no one likes to roleplay in their first week, it seems like), he loves it now. “It’s a way to express yourself, for me to be myself,” he says. “It also helps you to think about stuff. It’s easy to get in trouble and hard to get out, but if you use the skills you’ll be all right.”
Deciding to say no has been a hugely important skill for Alizé. “I came home to a lot of people trying to get me to go down the wrong path,” he says. “They’re trying to put drugs in my hands, to put guns in my hands.” Setting boundaries helps, too. “I love some of them. We grew up together, but I have to distance myself sometimes.”
In the future Alizé wants to get his CDL and to get certified as a diesel mechanic. He smiles when he talks about the future. He has a plan, and for the first time he knows how to implement it. He knows he can get there. And he knows he’s on the right path.
* * * *
We know you’re on the right path, too. And we’re going to do everything we can to help you, Alizé. We’re so proud of you, and at 24, you have a lifetime waiting for you!
As these words are being written, criminal justice reform is a hot topic. Inhumanely long sentences are being re-examined; solitary confinement is being halted. And we at Turning Leaf are delighted to know that April is National Second Chance Month.
Our men are all offered a new direction when they come here. A new chance to change their lives. That’s what we value here, and that’s what we believe in.
So, too, does President Joe Biden. In a recent proclamation, he wrote, “During Second Chance Month, we lift up all those who, having made mistakes, are committed to rejoining society and making meaningful contributions.”
Janarius is an example of someone who can and should be lifted up. As a teenager, he got caught up in the streets. Mistakes were made; opportunities were wasted. But now at 25, Janarius has a whole life ahead of him with a priceless opportunity to build a lasting relationship with his son.
He won’t waste his second chance.
This is Janarius’ story.
* * * *
Janarius is the third of nine children – eight boys and one girl and including two sets of twins (Janarius is one of the four twins). A chubby baby, his mama called him Fatty, a nickname that sticks with him to this day. He likes it, though. “It’s an oxymoron,” he says. “Fatty Smalls. It’s like Biggie Smalls.”
“Besides,” he adds. “It’s a name my mama gave me. I’d rather be called that than my real name.”
When he was young he had a bad stutter, which kept him quiet in school. “If the teacher asked someone to read out loud, I didn’t to do it,” he says. He was a good student anyway, bright and willing (for the most part) to do the work that came easily to him. At home, he and three of his closest brothers were called “the bad four,” but it wasn’t without affection. They were the wild ones, fighting in the house, running around, playing hard. They were full of energy and loved to be outside.
His biological father wasn’t in the picture at all. Most of the work and financial burden of raising nine children fell on his mother, and he respects everything she did. “She never forced our fathers to be in our lives,” he says. “She never asked for child support, and she always told us, ‘If he doesn’t want to be in your life, I don’t want to force it, and I don’t want you chasing him.’” His stepfather was there, and that was enough.
Childhood wasn’t without its difficulties, however. They moved a lot, from one project to another, and Janarius and his brothers changed schools a lot, too. The neighborhoods were rough. “The strong survive,” he says. When he was in sixth grade, his little cousin was run over by a drunken uncle right in front of his house, a traumatic experience for everyone.
The streets beckoned, too, and by seventh grade, Janarius was ready to answer their call. “I had to separate my lives,” he says. “In school I was a star student, but then I was also running the streets hard. I was running out late, hanging out with older kids.”
“I was a violent kid,” he adds. “My friends and I would go around the neighborhood and beat up crackheads.” That’s what the older kids did, you see. And for Janarius – the shy kid with the stutter he’d worked hard to suppress – the violence was an opportunity to find acceptance.
Football almost saved him. His oldest brother was four years older than him and a star player at North Charleston High School. Janarius wanted to be like his brother, and started working hard to be the best football player he could be. He was a running back, a safety, and a linebacker. A coach and pastor became his mentor. “He told me, ‘You don’t need to be doing this street stuff. You got talent,’” says Janarius. The encouragement kept him going during the school year. Janarius played football and baseball. He ran track. He did all the right things, and by the end of his ninth-grade year he was ninth in his class at North Charleston High School.
“But there was something about the streets that kept calling me back,” he says. “I was trying to be accepted and prove myself. It made me run the streets harder than who I really was.”
In middle school he and his friends had built a rap group called the Young Goons. They had a following, which grew as they all went to different high schools and spread out, finding new fans. But a rival group called the Young Gunners started, and the two groups fought at school and at parties. They wreaked havoc wherever they went, until local police started a task force to stop the two unofficial gangs from getting worse.
Summers were the worst for Janarius. Without the structure of school and sports, he ran the streets full time. He didn’t want to ask his mama for money, since she was working hard to support all nine kids, so he sold marijuana each summer to fund purchases for school.
It was in the summer before his twelfth grade that things fell apart. Janarius had just turned 18 – he started school late due to a November birthday, and he repeated sixth grade – and had spent a day playing video games and talking to his girlfriend. He left the house to run to the store and stopped to hang out with friends at an apartment complex where none of them lived. It was one of those nights that starts kind of quiet but escalates. Police showed up and told them to hit the road or they’d be picked up for trespassing; they left, but came right back, happy with their spot. When the police returned, the kids all hid on balconies and porches, then decided to move on. It was one guy’s birthday. They wanted to smoke weed to celebrate, but nobody had any money.
The guys decided to rob a cab driver to get the cash for weed. “I was the last man there,” says Janarius. “They tried to tell me they had it. They told me to sit this one out. But I bullied my way in.”
One of the guys had a gun. They robbed the cabbie and spent the night in an abandoned house, thinking they’d gotten away with it. Only problem was: Janarius left a handprint on the car. He was picked up by the police at his brother’s house the next day. Of the crew, he was only one who went to jail, eventually pleading out with ten years for attempted armed robbery.
“At first I was angry,” he says. But then he realized this was a wake-up call. “I started hanging out with older guys, and I got in the auto-body shop.” Janarius got certified in auto work and felt things start to change. “I calmed down a lot. I was less aggressive, and I didn’t think about robbing and fighting anymore. I thought about making a family and trying to make everything right.”
Change is difficult, though. Some of his friends still run streets, and when he got out of prison after six years (two in county, four in state), he felt their pull again. It was still the easiest way of making money.
But in his first week home he had a conversation that changed everything. “I talked to an ex-girlfriend and she told me I might have a son,” he says. “I took a DNA test and found out I had a child. I came home to a seven-year-old son.”
“I can’t do this anymore,” he told himself. “I have a child now, and I already missed seven years of his life.”
Turning Leaf had sent Janarius a letter as he was getting ready to get out of prison; he found it and called. The road ahead would still be bumpy, though, with a couple of false starts here at Turning Leaf.
Janarius is back for his third attempt at our program. It’s different this time. Back at Christmas, he didn’t have any money to buy his son gifts. “I don’t want to be like my father and be a failure,” he says. “This time, I’m still here fighting, and I’m getting a lot out of it.”
Nowadays, when Janarius isn’t at work, he’s probably at home, playing video games with his son instead of hanging out with friends on the streets. “If I’m out with the guys,” he says, “I know at the end of the day I’ll wind up back in the same loop.”
He’s using the skills he learns here, and especially credits Turning Leaf with helping him learn to speak up in front of people. He’s working hard to get to Level 3 and then full-time in the Print Shop.
Janarius has goals for the next few years. “Next year I want to surprise my son with some toys and make him be happy,” he says. Beyond that, he hopes to find a good job and have a family in the future. He’s only 25 years old, after all. He’s got a whole lifetime to live up to his second chance.
* * * *
We’re with you all the way, Janarius! You’ll make the most of this second chance, and we’ll always be there to help. We believe in you!
Van was the kid in his neighborhood who was supposed to get out. The smart one. The one everyone rallied around and protected. But somehow, still, at 17 he made a mistake, which led to another, and another, until he wound up deep in the exact life he was supposed to avoid: the life of a drug dealer and addict.
Today he’s using those experiences to help others find a new path the same way he did: through hard work, introspection, and a willingness to change.
This is Van’s story.
* * * *
Van is acutely aware of the stories of the students in his class with Turning Leaf. “I didn’t have it anywhere near as bad as some of the rest of the guys,” he says.
But really, who’s the judge of that? Like so many of our students, Van’s childhood was marked by trauma and violence. His maternal grandparents were killed by his mother’s ex-boyfriend before he was born. He lived with his mother and great-grandmother. His father wasn’t really in the picture. A recovering drug addict who relapsed, he committed suicide when Van was 17 years old. They weren’t close, but considering 17 was the age at which things started to fall apart for Van, it’s safe to say his father’s death had a dramatic impact.
As a child, his neighborhood was filled with drugs, dealers, and the violence inherent in that world. Van was protected, though, and not only because everybody knew he was a bright kid destined for bigger things. “The whole neighborhood knew my mom,” he says, laughing. As in: they were afraid of her, afraid of what she’d do to them if they let anything happen to her boy. It was a good kind of fear.
In high school Van wrestled and had scholarships waiting for him when he graduated. He started smoking marijuana, though, and a drug bust at 17 landed him in hot water. He was expelled, his scholarships rescinded. The high school administrators encouraged him to take a year off, take some classes at Trident Tech, and then come back the next school year to finish school. Van had other plans.
He started selling drugs. “I thought, ‘I like to smoke weed, so why not sell it?’” he says. His habit and his sales stayed recreational for a few years, “but then I started having kids.”
After the birth of his first daughter, a friend said, “You know a lot of people, why don’t you get rid of this for me,” and handed him a bunch of cocaine. He sold it, bought more, and sold more. Money came fast, and so did more kids.
In his early twenties Van got arrested, sat in county for a while, and realized he should get out of the lifestyle. He worked a straight job for a few years, but when he and his children’s mother broke up, “child support started catching up with me.” He went back to what he knew, this time selling harder drugs like meth and heroin. He started using harder stuff, too. The lifestyle was exciting: women, drugs, and partying. A friend taught him how to print counterfeit money, so he added that to his repertoire.
Life was spiraling out of control, but Van couldn’t see it. Not yet. He was getting arrested for minor charges like possession, driving on a suspended license, and assaults and batteries for bar fights. “I had some anger management problems,” he says. But as the charges piled up, “it was nothing that made me say I’ve got to stop and slow down.”
That started to change after he caught his first felony charge, possession with intent to distribute cocaine, meth, and heroin. He was able to bond out, and friends told him to slow down. In Van’s mind, though, he’d just spent a bunch of money and had to make it up. “I probably should have stayed in jail and sat,” he says now.
A couple months later, he was arrested again, this time for trafficking, a far more serious crime. It landed him a $250,000 bond that kept him in jail, but not out of trouble. While he awaited trial, he met a guy who showed him how to counterfeit better. “When I get out of jail, I’m gonna do this,” he thought. “It’ll be great.” He had big “street dreams,” and when the charge resulted in ten years’ suspended sentence with five years’ probation, he thought he was sitting pretty.
His plan was to make enough money to get himself back on his feet, but when he got out he found his family in disarray. Three of his kids were staying in hotel rooms with their mom. “I felt like they needed me,” he says. “I felt like I had to do what I had to do.”
Things moved quickly from there. The counterfeit built up his bank account, and he started selling a lot more drugs. “I started using a lot more than I did before, too,” he says. “I’m making all this money but I’m also getting high all the time.” His relationship with his children’s mother deteriorated. He started talking to another girl, and she asked him to help her and a friend improve their counterfeit skills. He did, not knowing the Secret Service was watching her friend, capturing pictures of them and Van in his hotel room.
The street life started closing in. He ran into a high school friend right after using fake money in her store. She called the police, and when she warned him on Facebook messenger, he blocked her.
A couple of days before Christmas in 2018, Van was running out to pick up a new iPhone for his daughter when a friend called, wanting meth. It was late and Van didn’t want to bother with the deal, but the money was too good to turn down. This time he had a friend drive so he couldn’t catch another charge for driving on a suspended license.
When cops pulled up behind them, the friend sped up, allowing Van to throw his drugs out the window. But they were caught, as you usually are. Van admitted to everything, taking the full charge to keep his friend out of jail. He went to Berkeley County jail.
A few days later the Secret Service showed up to talk to him. Soon it was all over the local papers: Van was part of an accused counterfeit ring. He was indicted on federal conspiracy charges.
Together, the charges and plea deals added up to Van serving approximately 30 months total in various jails and prisons. “My daughter was crushed,” Van says. “That’s the part that hurt me the most.”
Today, he admits that going to prison was the best thing that ever happened to him. While inside, he started going to a DAODAS program, which provides services to addicts. He attended AA meetings. “At first I only went there for the microwave,” he says. “But then, after a couple of months, I started listening to the stories being told around me, and it hit me: you know what? I’m a drug addict!”
At the time of our interview, Van has celebrated 11 months of sobriety, starting in prison and continuing after. He’s living in an Oxford House, a sober-living facility, and thriving there. He attends AA and NA meetings three times per week, or more if he feels like he needs it.
He found out about Turning Leaf right before his release and never had any doubts about applying. Between Turning Leaf, AA, and the books our case manager, Justin, gives him to read, he’s learning a ton, realizing how much of his own personality he hid throughout the years to seem “hard.”
“I like being around the other guys at Turning Leaf,” he says. “I see where I was, and I’m surrounded by people who want to change. I want to change. My situation could have been a lot worse than it was. I know that. It makes me appreciate my second chance even more.”
“We don’t have to be a product of our environment. We can be more than that. It sounds like common sense, but a lot of us aren’t taught that as kids. Life is 20% of what happens to you, and 80% how you react to it. I live by that now.”
* * * *
Van starts college next month, working toward a degree in counseling. He’s hoping to find a car soon so he can stop feeling like a burden to his children’s mothers. His is a big, blended family, and he cherishes every minute he spends with the kids, their mothers, and his newfound friends at the Oxford House and Turning Leaf.
Congratulations on how far you’ve come already, Van. We’re all watching to see how far you’ll go. We know it’ll be incredible.
It’s funny how a single decision can change the trajectory of a person’s life. Sometimes it’s not even your own life. Those of us with children or who work with children know we can say or do things – sometimes without thinking about it – that affect a child in monumental ways.
In Terrell’s case, it was a basketball coach who cut him from the team in 10th grade who completely changed his life, and not for the better. But after weeks at Turning Leaf, Terrell would be the first to tell you: it’s not the coach’s fault he’s spent a total of 12 years in prison. No, that’s on Terrell.
But he also knows: he has the power to change his own life, for the better this time, using the skills and work ethic learned daily, in class and on the Print Shop floor at Turning Leaf.
This is Terrell’s story.
* * * *
Terrell grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, and it was always a little rough. The streets always called. When he was only five, his father was pulled over by the police with little Terrell in the car. The cops found drugs, and Terrell’s father didn’t want DSS called for his boy. He wanted to get the child to his grandmother’s house.
Terrell’s father made a choice that day. “He fought the police,” says Terrell. “He beat them up, took me to my grandma’s house, and then waited for the police to come. He got 15 years for that.”
His father stayed in the picture, even from jail. “He raised me through the phone,” he says. “He told me to stay positive. He told me to play sports and supported me even though he was locked up.” Terrell went to see him every weekend.
It was mainly Terrell and his mom from that point on, though. Terrell was a good kid, involved in school and basketball. In fact, he was so good at basketball he played varsity ball in 9th grade, a power forward who could also play center. He had a scholarship waiting for him at Coastal Carolina University. College was on the horizon and things were really good.
The summer before his sophomore year of high school, Terrell spent a lot of time working. He’d cut grass, wash cars. “My mother instilled in me that I had to work at an early age.” She’d still buy him what he needed, but those things he wanted – the nice school clothes, movies with his friends on the weekends – he had to work for. So he did, all summer long. But Terrell’s schedule of odd jobs kept him away from summer basketball practices, and by the time he went back to school in August, the coach told him he was cut from the team.
“Basketball was my motivation for school,” he says. He dropped out, lost his scholarship, and things snowballed from there.
“I joined gangs then,” he says. “I was looking for unity. My dad and I fell out, too. He was trying to teach me to be a better person than him, but I was like, ‘How you gonna teach me something when you’re in jail?’” His mother told him he couldn’t live with her anymore, not if he wasn’t in school, so he went to the streets.
He started small, stealing rims off people’s cars (usually from the bigger dealers in the neighborhood). The older guys took notice of him. “They saw my hustle mentality,” he says. “I never asked anybody for money…I asked to wash their cars or cut their grass. I asked to do something to make money, so they saw I was ambitious.”
Those guys set Terrell up as a lookout, keeping an eye out for cops while they did their thing. Soon he was selling drugs, and then he started robbing people too. It’s an addition, like a drug. “I was addicted to the power of robbing,” he says. “I can see that now. If you hold a gun to somebody you can get whatever you want from them. But that’s not the right way.”
Terrell caught his first charge when he was 16 years old. Aggravated robbery and attempted murder. He and his friend needed money to buy cigarettes and weed early on a Sunday morning. They decided to rob a paperboy. Things went south when the paperboy didn’t want to be robbed. He wouldn’t hand over the money, and Terrell’s friend shot him. “The plan was for him to scare the paperboy with the gun and then I’d go in his pockets. But that didn’t happen.” While he didn’t shoot the gun and his homeboy took the majority of the rap, Terrell still received a 27-month sentence in a juvenile facility.
The Youthful Offender Act – YOA – meant that if he stayed out of trouble for two years following his release at 18, Terrell’s record would have been expunged. That didn’t happen though. He caught a gun charge, did another ten months, then after that a charge for armed robbery. That time he served three full years, with zero hope of clearing his record.
By the time he got out, Terrell was 21 with three major charges on his record. When the feds caught him a year later, nabbing him for distribution of crack-cocaine and felony possession of a firearm, they sent him away for six and a half years.
It was time for Terrell to re-think his ways, he realized. He says, “To me, prison was a place to rehabilitate yourself. You have to think about what you did wrong and how you can fix your mistake. Prison can make you worse if you don’t take the tools they give you and run with it.”
To Terrell, those tools include a routine of getting up early and getting to work, something he now uses in his daily life at the halfway house. “If you wake up at 5:30 in the morning,” he says, “and get busy working, you can have a job.”
Turning Leaf has enabled Terrell to take those tools and run with them, exactly how he wanted to. He was referred to us by another resident of the halfway house, and once he talked to Justin and Blue, he knew he wanted to take the program seriously.
“I see a change in myself already,” he says. “Turning Leaf is teaching me work ethic, how to be responsible. I can walk away from a situation now before it starts. The 25 skills they teach – you can use them in everyday life. You can even use all 25 in a single day if you need to.”
Terrell’s mother can see the change too. Through everything, she’s always stood by him. Always hoped. Always prayed. He says, “Right now she’s very proud, just as proud of me as she’s ever been. She can ride down the road at night and see the police and know it’s not me in the back of their car.”
The future looks bright for Terrell. He’s looking for a place to live when he gets out of the hallway house and hopes to stay in Charleston. One day he wants to own his own business.
“I’m a straight-up guy,” Terrell says. “I’m funny. I don’t want to be in the mess anymore.”
* * * *
We definitely value you for your sense of humor, Terrell, and your work ethic. We know you’re going to go so far in this world, and we’re so proud of you.