The majority of men who come through Turning Leaf are older. We see men in their thirties, forties, and even fifties. They’ve been on the streets for decades, in and out of prison for just as long. It can take years – a lifetime, even – to decide to change, to get off the streets and away from the lifestyle.
This week we’ll meet someone different. His whole life has been rough. Complicated. An unrelenting challenge. And today, at the ripe old age of 19-years-old, he’s already had enough. He wants a better future, and he’s finding it at Turning Leaf.
This is Rome’s story.
* * * *
Rome spent his childhood in Charleston and Virginia. They spent few years here, a few years there, as his mother sought employment that would support Rome and his two brothers. A middle child, Rome was an imaginative kid, which may have helped him cope with the curveballs life continually lobbed his way. He never met or even spoke to his father, who’s been in prison for the entirety of Rome’s life.
Bouncing between states wasn’t the worst part. “We were basically homeless for parts of my childhood,” he says. They stayed in homeless shelters for months at a time. His granny was in the picture and sometimes they stayed with her, but relationships between mothers and daughters can be fraught, so sometimes his mother took her boys and set out on her own.
Rome always remembers stealing things. “Granny would be running me through the store in my stroller,” he says. “And I’d take candy and stuff. She didn’t know.” And since she didn’t know, she never told him not to do it.
By middle school, instability took its toll. Rome was placed in special education classes for students with learning disabilities, a tough label for a kid who just wants to fit in. “I wanted to make a name for myself,” he says. “I wanted people to envy me and like me.” To make that name, he turned to the street life, getting in fights and stealing items bigger than candy bars. At thirteen, he was arrested for second degree burglary and running away. He spent two months in a detention center and 45 days in an evaluation center. After that, DSS intervened when his auntie reported that Rome and his brothers weren’t being cared for by their mama, and he was sent to a group home.
“It was horrible. Like prison,” he says. The staff sometimes teamed up with children who picked on Rome, adding their voices to the fray. He learned there to try to laugh, to keep smiling, as a way to deflect further confrontation. But he never turned away from a fight, either. He still wanted to make that name for himself.
Rome was in the group home for around 14 months before he was able to return to his mama in Charleston. There, he found more trouble on the streets. He was selling weed, usually armed, and definitely in the wrong crowd.
On the night of Rome’s seventeenth birthday, he and his homeboy were chilling together when some guys called, wanting to buy weed. They walked over to meet the guys. Rome’s friend pulled out his stash, and one of the guys said, “That’s all you got?” Rome pulled out his as well. “Then, the dude tried to punch me or something,” he says. “The other dude grabbed my homeboy and tackled him. He was in motion, tackling him to the ground, and I already pulled out my gun and starting shooting.”
As you might expect, the situation only escalated. “I was mad,” he says. “They stole my weed. I was trying to get some change so I could get a haircut. I wasn’t nervous or anything. They didn’t have a gun, until they took one off my homeboy.”
“My homeboy was on the ground with one of the dudes. The other was in the corner shooting at me. I shot the dude on the ground three times, then shot the other dude. At that point, I was scared. I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t run and leave my homeboy.”
The girlfriend of one of the guys came out and said she was going to call the cops. “I wanted to be like, ‘Call them! Call them,’” says Rome. “But I wasn’t able to. Because then the dude pointed the gun at my homeboy’s head and told me to stop shooting. So I did. He got up, my homeboy got up, and we ran.”
Rome stopped home long enough to grab some clothes and a bag of stuff. The police arrived at his house pretty quickly, but Rome was already gone. He was on the run. He slept in cars for the next three nights, hiding out during the day. “The police got tired of looking for me so they called in the U.S. Marshals. It was kind of exciting. I mean, I got them. They couldn’t find me.”
Rome was planning on turning himself in eventually, thinking that he’d shot the other guys in self-defense, but the Marshals found him first. They hauled him off to county, where he awaited trial on two counts of attempted murder and the commission of a violent crime with a deadly. He spent eight months in county, then took a plea deal to assault and battery in the first degree and a simple marijuana possession charge. The judge took his age into account, and he was sent to Turbeville Correctional Institution for a year and a half.
In prison, the teenage boy first tried the same tack that he’d been using to get through life on the outside: he fought everyone and anyone, trying to make a name for himself. But something sort of amazing happened there – some older guys took him under their wing. “People were giving me good advice,” he says. “I read a lot of books, and some of the guys stepped up and were like a replacement for my dad. They taught me how to be a man.”
Their best advice? “The streets aren’t fun,” he says. “The streets don’t love no one. At the end of the day, you have to get out of the streets somehow.”
Even though he was young – still a teenager – he listened. He learned. He saw the men around him who were facing ten, twenty, thirty-year sentences, and he knew he didn’t want to be one of them.
When Rome got out, everything felt different. “People were beefing, but I’m not trying to have anything to do with that,” he says. His mama’s friend told them about Turning Leaf, and his mama made the call with Rome sitting by her side. At 18-years-old, he became one of the youngest students ever to join the program.
“I feel comfortable there,” he says of working and learning among much older men. “Sometimes the classes are boring. I sort of already know some of the stuff. A lot of situations in my life, I could’ve flipped out but I didn’t. I’m humble.” Still, he knows the time he spends there is incredibly valuable.
Rome is very quiet and is using his time at Turning Leaf to learn how to communicate more effectively. He is spending a lot of time these days doing deep thinking about life and spirituality. His world view has broadened.
Now, his future feels brighter. Anything is possible. “I want to have my own spot for me and my girl,” he says. “I want my own car. Maybe my own business someday. I want to be able to support my family.”
* * * *
Rome, you may be one of our youngest students ever, but you’re certainly proving yourself wise beyond your years. Life has thrown you curveballs but you’re still at the plate, and we couldn’t be more proud of you.
Life on the streets doesn’t always make sense. In that way, it’s the same as the straight life. You find good people in bad situations who still try to live by a strict moral code, but you also find people willing to beg, borrow, steal, and lie just get ahead.
Marvin comes down on the good side of the street life scales. He chose the “easy” path to make money, but still had rules that governed his choices. Sometimes those rules landed him in extra trouble, but he had his code and he lived by it.
This is Marvin’s story.
* * * *
Marvin’s childhood wasn’t exceptional; his family wasn’t rich, but neither were they poor. His parents were together and life felt stable. His favorite memories are of going to work with his father on Saturdays. His father, a carpenter who built cabinets, paid him for his work, teaching Marvin early on how to work hard. His grandparents helped solidify that lesson for him. They had a farm and whenever Marvin spent time with them, the rule was you had to work for your supper. There, he picked peas, peanuts, potatoes, corn…you name it, he probably picked is on his grandparents’ farm. And while he sometimes tried to beat the system, telling his grandmother he wasn’t going to eat that day, he had to do the work anyway. The reward – his grandmother’s cooking – was always worth it.
Everything changed when Marvin was 14. “My dad was cheating,” he says. His mother kicked him out. “She cried a lot,” he says. “I think I got mad at my dad. I told myself I wouldn’t do that.”
His family’s financial situation changed drastically now that they were a single-income unit. Marvin had to shift from being a kid with new stuff to a kid with hand-me-downs from his older cousins. It was frustrating, he says. “Everybody at school had new stuff and I had hand-me-downs…I had to go make some money.”
This is where the street life caught him.
Marvin’s uncle would stay at their house sometimes. He was involved in the street life – smoking and selling weed. While he was asleep, Marvin would take his stash, then sell it at school the next day. It was easy money.
Soon he and a cousin began smoking weed as well, and the lifestyle was solidified.
Marvin flew under the radar for a long time – a brief stint at juvie in his later teens due to truancy hardly counts as being in trouble for a man who would later spend over a decade in prison. When he was 20, though, the life caught up with him. Marvin was hanging out at an apartment with an acquaintance. The police were looking for the other guy. He took off, and the police nabbed Marvin instead. They found drugs on him and brought him in. “They said, ‘Tell me where so-an-so is, and we’ll forget all about this,’” he says. “I said I don’t know who that is. It was my stuff on me, so it was my fault. I can’t do that to someone else. I don’t believe in that.”
Marvin’s unwillingness to turn on someone else landed him two years in probation, which wouldn’t have been too big a deal if he wasn’t still smoking weed regularly. He skipped an appointment with his PO and was arrested shortly thereafter. He spent about 5 ½ months in county while they sorted his case, so when he was sentenced to six months prison time, he was released from the state prison after just a couple of days.
His next arrest, and first federal charge, came in 2005, this time for possession of firearms as well as crack-cocaine. Once again, his unwillingness to turn on a friend made things harder on himself. He was picked up leaving a motel with a friend and was able to bond himself out. He tried to bond the friend out as well, but the friend’s father told him to leave the man in jail. While there, the friend turned on Marvin. The drugs and guns were all Marvin’s, he said. Marvin could have said the same but didn’t. The two aren’t friends anymore.
While that charge was pending, things got worse. Another friend wanted to take care of a dude who was messing with his girl. Marvin wanted to help. They got caught by police, and, as Marvin says, “I already had the one charge, so I took this one, too.”
With numerous gun charges facing him, he pled out, facing almost eight full years in prison. He had a daughter already and had to leave her behind. Other than that, though, prison didn’t feel too terrible. There were rules to be followed (for example: don’t talk to the police, ever), structure to be found. Life shifted into 60-minute increments: an hour in the library, an hour in the rec yard, and so on. Marvin’s biggest challenge came when somebody planted a knife on him. “They stole months from me,” he says, referring to the fact that this added back onto his sentence. He tried to appeal it to no avail; months were added on and his sentence extended.
Marvin remained in the street life after that long prison sentence. He had two more children – sons this time – before catching more charges and a 4-month sentence. He missed more years with his children, more years with a woman he met just before he went back to prison.
Today, Marvin is 40 years old. He got out of prison in September and has a few more weeks left in the halfway house. He wears an ankle bracelet that monitors his location all day, every day. He works at Turning Leaf during the day until 5:00 and has to be back to the halfway house by 6:00. He can stay outside until 8:00, then has to be inside with all the other men. There are 28 of them living in a single dormitory room. It’s not exactly peaceful but it’s better than the alternative. “I’m too old for that now,” he says. He’s trying to have relationships with his children, but it’s hard. He’s missed a lot. His daughter is 16 and is pregnant; this will be another responsibility he’ll have to face, as she wants to keep the baby.
Marvin is happy he found Turning Leaf. He likes it. The rules aren’t too hard to follow, and he’s learning how to deal with his problems in a productive way. When his sons’ mother texted him the other day, asking for money, he was able to stay calm and deal with it. Would he prefer she give him time to settle into his life before asking him for things? Of course, but thanks to Turning Leaf, it didn’t turn into a battle.
His new girlfriend won’t tolerate the street lifestyle, he knows. He likes that about her. “I feel good now,” he says. “I’ve got my girl and we’re doing this together. I have support.”
“I’m a good person,” he says. “I do my best. I want to get a good job and stay with the free life from here on out.”
* * * *
We know you can do it, Marvin. Stick to your moral code, do the right thing, and we’ve got your back all the way.
By any measure, Chip is a Turning Leaf success story. Since graduating in 2017, he’s stayed clean. Regained custody of his daughters. Found a partner with whom to share his life. Launched a successful landscaping business.
But to understand exactly how remarkable a story is, sometimes you need to understand the depths of despair through which that person has traveled. This is Chip’s story.
* * * *
Chip’s childhood was fairly quiet. He grew up in Massachusetts and vacationed with his family down south. Trips to Florida and Myrtle Beach were the norm, until his father had an accident in 2000 and the family moved south to enjoy the warmer climate. The move wasn’t welcomed by Chip; then a freshman in high school, he voiced his anger by acting out: skipping school and smoking pot became his norm. A drug charge at 17 ended with a fine and a slap on the wrists, and life began to escalate.
By the time Chip was 27, he was married and had children. A job. A normal, everyday life that most people would be proud of. Unfortunately, though, Chip was leading a double-life. “I was taking pain pills all the time,” he says. “I was making drug deals, ripping off people at work, all to support the habit.” He asked his wife for help but she kicked him out instead, and soon Chip had taken up with a new girl, and together they dove deeper into their habit: IV heroin use.
“By then,” he says, “I was physically dependent. I was working just to stay high.” Working to stay high translated into more trouble. He was arrested in 2014 on a heroin charge and numerous breach of trust charges from various employers. “People in jail thought I was snitching on someone because I kept getting pulled out to go to the courtroom to get served more warrants,” he says. “But that’s just how life goes sometimes.”
While in jail, he spent time evaluating things. “I became jailhouse-religious,” he says. “I prayed every night that I could get my family back together.”
He tried. He really did. After his released, he and his wife were in the process of reconciling. He was trying to stay clean. And then tragedy struck: his wife passed away around Christmas in 2015.
“I loved her with all my heart,” he says. “The night she passed, everything got taken away. It was like I was shit on by the universe, so I was just like…fuck it.”
His behavior and addiction spiraled out of control as he fell into a pit of self-destruction. His girls were with their mother’s parents, and he fell apart, a prisoner to heroin. “I needed it,” he says. “At any cost, right then, right now. I’d wake up sick and obsess over what I needed to do to get well for the day. Anything.” He spent his days on the streets, scavenging metal to salvage, stealing from mechanics’ garages and selling the parts. He never saved any of the drugs for the next morning; he couldn’t plan that far ahead. “I wanted to die,” he says. “My wife was dead and I wanted to be with her.”
At his lowest point, he remembers having nowhere to go. He’d burned all his bridges and spent nights in a homeless shelter. He was so poor that one day he didn’t even have a bottle of water with which to mix his dope. “I used rainwater from a puddle,” he says. “I didn’t get sick but afterwards I was completely disgusted with myself.” A couple weeks later he caught another charge and when he was released on probation he went straight to rehab. Life began to change.
His parole officer recommended Turning Leaf to him. There, he found a program that would help him rethink everything. “Y’all would call me out every time I wasn’t doing right,” he says, laughing. “Black and white thinking, strong personality, understanding other people’s feelings, weighing options and consequences. I struggled with those things.”
When he began the program he didn’t think he’d be able to stay sober, and the path hasn’t always been straightforward. He relapsed while still in Turning Leaf but came clean to the team before letting a drug test give him away. He saw how the people of Turning Leaf were willing to help him. “When I left the program, the support from you all didn’t end there. It never did.”
As Chip worked to turn his life around with help from Turning Leaf, AA and NA, his first issue was to regain custody of his daughters. The case was long and difficult. His in-laws had the girls and there were things he needed to do to get them back: get his driver’s license, a job, his own place. Even once he met those criteria, it wasn’t easy, but Chip was willing to fight. He says, “Who doesn’t, for their kids? If you’re a father and you don’t do everything you can for your kids, to be in their lives…that’s not how my dad raised me.” Turning Leaf was there with him every step of the way; he’d go by the program just to talk things through.
His first night having full custody of his girls was joyous and surreal. He’s re-learning how to parent. His 12-year-old pushes boundaries and struggles to control her diabetes, but together they’re learning the discipline needed to manage the disease. “I try to understand her feelings, but I also try to help her understand how to process them better,” he says. He doesn’t want them all to just get by; he wants them to thrive.
To that end, Chip has worked hard to succeed at a career he loves. Coming out of Turning Leaf he worked full time for the City of Charleston. He took side jobs delivering pizzas and landscaping. He met a lot of people, faced questionable situations, and tried to make ends meet. Soon it became apparent through a cost-benefit analysis he could support himself best by running his own landscaping business. He started small, buying a car, a push mower, and some other tools.
Today, Chip’s business is thriving. “I’m in a great place,” he says. “My goal is that when guys graduate from Turning Leaf, I want to be a job partner for you.” He wants to pay it forward, helping others in the same way he’s been helped. He hopes to get married soon to his live-in girlfriend so his daughters have a full family. “My girls are the reason for it all.”
* * * *
Chip, you’re a brilliant example of how Turning Leaf helps change lives. Thank you for sharing your story, and enjoy your new life with your beautiful girls.
Sometimes a person doesn’t know what they don’t know. Sometimes a boy grows up in a tunnel, with a single path ahead of him, surrounding him, always closing in on him. Sometimes the tunnel is the only option.
David was born into poverty. His male role models were drug dealers. How could he be expected to hope for anything else?
This is David’s story.
* * * *
David was born and raised in North Charleston. His family – his mother, three sisters and three brothers – lived in a trailer park. His mother worked two jobs to pay the bills, but it didn’t occur to him that it was unusual. “Her working didn’t hit me till later on,” he says. “Then it’s like, ‘Damn, you got bills, you got seven kids to take care of!’ She had a lot of responsibilities, but you don’t see that when you’re young. You just want want want.”
David’s father was almost entirely absent; he saw his daddy once in Georgia but only for a couple of days. But that, too, was okay when he was young. “I used to get my mama a Mother’s Day card and a Father’s Day card,” he says. “That’s my mama and my daddy. She played both cards and was a strong black woman.”
His best memories are of riding around town on his bicycle. “There were about ten of us,” he says. It felt like they ruled the streets, those boys riding on a BMX with pegs or a Pacific Huffy, popping wheelies and goofing around. It sounds like a typical suburban childhood, right? Only there was a catch: the bikes they rode were likely stolen, or found, broken, and fixed. It didn’t occur to David that this wasn’t normal. It didn’t occur to him not to steal.
Nowadays he thinks maybe things might have been different if his daddy had been in the picture. Maybe, he thinks, his daddy would have told him not to sell drugs. Maybe he’d have suggested David join the army instead, but the reality is: all David’s male role models sold drugs. His mama’s boyfriend did. The guys he saw on the street did. The guys for whom he did odd jobs did. He says, “They all told me not to sell drugs. They told me to stay in school. But they showed me the lifestyle.”
“All that money,” he says. “That’s what drew me in. A pocketful of money.”
David’s first drug sale came when he was around 12 or 13 years old. He’d done an odd job for a guy who restored houses and had $40 in his pocket. Typically, he’d use it for kid stuff – the skating rink or things like that – but this time he made an investment. He bought some drugs and flipped them, bought some more and flipped those too. That was all it took. David was all in.
But with the lifestyle, of course, comes trouble, and David soon found plenty of that. His first arrest came when he was about 14 years old. He was low on cash, and he and some other guys had heard a neighbor had some bricks (drugs) in the house. Someone suggested David check it out, so he did. “I took some drugs out, some jewelry, and a mattress,” he says. He lived two doors away, and someone saw him struggling with the mattress and called the cops. He was busted, spent seven days in juvenile and had to attend a program downtown.
It was nowhere near enough to stop the burgeoning salesman, though, particularly when his mama bought him a cell phone soon after and “serving,” as he calls it, got a whole lot easier. This time he started with $80 in his pocket. He bought a half ounce of weed and a gram of crack-cocaine. He flipped for $200, then just kept going, going, going.
David’s next arrest came when he was closer to 17. He was tried as a juvenile again and was sentenced to five years (suspended sentence, meaning he didn’t serve jail time) and three years of probation. His mama got rid of all his drugs, flushing anything she found down the toilet, but David still had some “in the cut,” as he calls it. Hidden, really, so once again, he kept on selling.
It was the lifestyle that drew him in, and it was the lifestyle that kept him going. He loved it and was always pushing to get to the next level. Money came so easily, as did the girls, the cars, and the guns. “Drugs sell themselves,” he says. “I felt unstoppable. I thought, ‘They can’t catch me. I’m too smart for their ass.’”
And yet, he says, “Sometimes you fumble. You drop the ball. Things are going good but then you get locked right down.” There were other issues, too. Police, robbers, snitches. “When you’re in the game, you gotta look for all that. You gotta respect that.” You also have to look over your shoulder all the time and hope no one is waiting there with a gun.
As time progressed David, had children of his own – four total – and was always able to provide financially for them. But the arrests started catching up with him as well.
Today, he has two big charges on his record. He recently completed a (comparatively minor) two-year sentence on a trafficking charge, and knows that if he catches another charge, he’ll be looking at something major. “I’m facing my third strike,” he says. “You get 25-life on the third strike.” So he made a promise to his kids to do things differently, and he found Turning Leaf.
For the first time since he was twelve, David hasn’t sold drugs in over a month. “I feel naked,” he says. “But I have to adapt to it. You gotta crawl before you can walk. Right now I’m crawling, but I’ll be walking soon.”
Since starting at Turning Leaf, David has learned things he never knew he needed. The role-playing in class feels funny sometimes – new things often do – but it helps him figure out what do in situations that come up daily, like peer pressure. He has the support and connections now that he needs to keep himself off the streets, where he doesn’t want to be. “I ain’t walking down the street right now,” he says. “I’m still looking behind my back, though. I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it.” The damages done by a street life can be invisible and long-lasting.
Today, though, David has a new dream: a nice career, a family, getting married and spending time with his children. He’d like to take vacations, get out of South Carolina for a while, and plan to retire. “I’m new and improved,” he says “I’m ready to go forward in life. I’m a strong black male and I’m ready to show my kids that I’m different, that I’ve changed, and that I’m ready to enjoy our life.”
* * * *
You got this, David. Your new life is going to shine.
Antonio grew from good, solid roots. Unlike a lot of the men we see come through Turning Leaf, his was a stable household. He was surrounded by love and never suffered through extreme poverty or hardship. “The route I took, I didn’t really have to,” he says.
But the lure of drugs and easy money are strong, and the lifestyle drew Antonio in. It’s taken decades and multiple prison sentences to show him: it’s time to grow up. His new life won’t be easy, but he’s dedicated to making a change. He, like many of our students, is dedicated to making it all work.
* * * *
Antonio’s favorite toy was a rocking horse his grandmother gave him when he was very young. “I loved that horse,” he says. “I loved it until I tore it up. My mom still talks about it.” He went to Church a lot: Sunday, Wednesday night, Friday, and choir practice on Saturdays. His mama, grandma, grandpa – they loved him. They didn’t cuss, didn’t drink, gave him everything he needed. His daddy was part of his life, too, albeit a bit of a more difficult one. “He was an alcoholic,” says Antonio. “Sometimes the neighbors would call to say Daddy was drunk, maybe he was falling down.” He knew his daddy loved him, too. If his mama needed money, his daddy provided it, and Antonio talked to his daddy all the time.
Still. Things weren’t perfect. Antonio was an outcast in his neighborhood, choosing not to do things other kids were doing. He realizes today, “They were less fortunate. I had everything I really needed.” The other kids often didn’t.
There was violence in his world, too. One day, his Mama came home married. “What the hell,” says Antonio. “He was just thrown on us, and I was mad. I didn’t like that dude, and I never really gave him a chance. But he abused my mama. That’s really the worst memory I have.” Antonio fought his stepfather, both to protect his mama and himself. “I hit him first. I was like, I know I can’t be a grown man but I’m gonna try.” He found out later his mother hid a lot of the violence from the rest of the family, and he felt alone.
The streets called. By age 17, he says, “My life was the street. Being your own boss, doing your own thing. I didn’t have to ask my mama for money. I didn’t have to explain why I spent $500.” He had a job for a while, working as a dishwasher at the original Noisy Oyster restaurant but, as he says, “A normal job isn’t instant money. You have to wait on a paycheck.” When he lost that job, he headed to the streets full time.
“It’s like a vacuum cleaner – it sucks you in,” he says. “And eventually you think, how’d I even get here? I’m in deep, getting high. I did everything. Cocaine, weed…everything.” He caught a bunch of charges but had good lawyers and shook most of them, so he had no reason to change. “I had the freedom to do what I wanted to do. I had females. Clout. I love going out of town. There ain’t too many places I’ve never been. I always had a lot of money in my pocket, and I was able to make decisions on a whim.”
He was into gambling, too, playing cards often and for high stakes. “It was nothing to me to lose $4,000 or $5,000 a hand” he says. “I liked the excitement of it.”
In retrospect, he sees how crazy the lifestyle actually was. One night he was coming out of a club when he and his friends saw a man lying on the ground. “He was dead like Jesus on the cross,” he says. “I had a rental car parked right by him. My friends wanted to drive away before the police came. I thought about it, looked at him, then rode off, never giving it a second thought. Now I think…that’s not normal. It’s not. But that was just a normal day.”
He’s had two major prison sentences in his life. His first child hadn’t yet been born when he was sent up the first time, so it didn’t hit him, not really. When he came out, he was right back to the lifestyle, with a caveat. “I was a drug dealer and a family man,” he says. “I wouldn’t stay out late. I took my kids to Disney World, Sea World. I was a family guy, I just also sold drugs.”
Through it all his mama and grandmother were still a part of his life. “They’d always tell me they love me, they pray for me. They never turned their back on me, ever, not even when I went to prison.”
One night, his relationship with his mama saved his life.
Antonio was recovering from an injury – he’d broken his foot falling down stairs while “rescuing” his girlfriend from the possibility of a bird flying through an open attic window. He was still on crutches and had borrowed his mama’s car since he didn’t have one of his own at the time. (Digression: he didn’t have a car because he’d purchased an F150 from a chop shop, and everyone involved in the transaction had gotten in trouble. Antonio took the charges for everyone, protecting his sister and cousins from jail time.)
Antonio was hanging out at his homeboy’s house, getting high. He had to pick up his mama from work at 10:00 that night. He must’ve fallen asleep because the next thing he knew, it was 10:10 and his homeboy was shaking him. “Go pick up your mama,” he said.
Antonio hobbled out the door on his crutches, leaving his homeboy alone with “his cocaine and shit.” He picked up his mama, dropped her at home, then went back to his homeboy’s house. He let himself in, and immediately felt like something was wrong. “I couldn’t figure it out, though,” he says. Then he noticed the couch was overturned. It took a hot minute before he noticed his homeboy, on the floor, covered in blood. “Someone stabbed him 57 times,” he says. “It was a robbery.”
“I left my crutches on the porch,” he says. “I was so scared. I hopped down the stairs and into the car and took off. I saw a dude who smoked crack on the street and I told him to call the police. Something’s happened to our homeboy. Then I saw the ambulance come, and it didn’t leave. I knew he was dead.”
Antonio’s fingerprints and DNA were all over the place and he was questioned for hours, but ultimately they let him go. After all, he didn’t kill his homeboy, but has that ever stopped someone from going to jail before? He got lucky.
It was just another day on the streets.
The next time Antonio caught a big charge, it was because he was caught with drugs his little cousin was selling. “I probably could have beat it,” he says. “But I was tired.”
He realized something needed to change.
The realization hit most strongly when his cousin called him one day. They’d been tag-teaming prison for a while already – one would go in when the other got out, and vice versa. It wasn’t intentional; it was just the life they were leading. He also missed his kids. He had to change.
It wasn’t easy, though, at least not at Kershaw, where he spent the beginning of his sentence. There, he says, “It was kill or be killed…but I’ve got a knife, and I’ll fight.” He saw people stabbed, saw a man hit over the head with an ax. “This is crazy,” he thought, but although he filled out transfer paperwork, he assumed he was stuck. He started selling drugs in jail, just like he did in the street. He guarded his possessions carefully. It was a crazy life, with no room for change.
Luckily, he got sent to Allendale, where things were better. He enrolled in programs and classes and was surprised to realize, “Man, this shit might work if you give it a try. My kids were saying, Daddy, I don’t want you to go back. I realized if I don’t do nothing for me, maybe for them I can change my outcome.” He worked his way into a different headspace. “It was time to grow up.”
There was much to de-program, though. Back at Kershaw, he couldn’t leave anything alone or it would be stollen. He’d wear his sneakers to the shower, even, relying on his few friends to keep an eye out when he changed into his shower shoes. He continued to do so at Allendale, until one day an older man approached. “Hey big man,” he said. “You don’t need to do that here.”
In his classes, too, he found things worked a bit differently. He began with a chip on his shoulder, his rebellious streak on full display. “At first, I thought, fuck this,” he says. “I ain’t raising my hand.” Another older man stepped in. “He said, ‘I can see you’re an alright dude. Is it gonna hurt you to raise your hand?’ I said no. And he said, ‘Then why you not gonna raise your hand? I’m a mentor and you make me look bad if you don’t.” Antonio says with a laugh, “I thought I was being a bitch if I raised my hand. That I was submitting to the system. But eventually, I started raising my hand.”
Antonio has been part of the Turning Leaf family for a month already. “I enjoy it,” he says. “That’s why I’m on time and I come every day. It’s changing me. If I want to change, I’ve gotta be uncomfortable. At Allendale, they taught me how to deal with white folks. I never had to deal with white folks before unless they’re buying my product. Dealing with white folks was a challenge – they’re part of the system. But I’ve realized, at Allendale and here at Turning Leaf, that every black man ain’t good, and every white man ain’t bad.”
“You can have new beginnings,” he says. “You can have new friends. You can have a support system.” At Turning Leaf he’s found access to the help he needs to remain on track. If he could tell people anything about himself, he’d say, “I’m just a guy, and I’ve been there, where you’re at, and I’m trying to make a change. But it’s hard,” he says. “I probably only have $10 in my pocket, but I’m good with that.”
* * * *
It won’t always be easy, Antonio, but you’re right. You have new friends and a support system. You have access to help if you need it. We’re here for you, today and always!
So say a million internet memes, usually plastered across a picture of a wrinkly dog lying face-down on the sidewalk. And it’s true: we all have rough days, managing our jobs, our bills, and our kids. I know I’ve contemplated the pain of “adulting” on an afternoon when the drain is clogged, the dogs are making a mess, and my child is down with a migraine. It is hard to be the bearer of responsibility, no doubt about it.
But for some, the very idea of “adulting” (a privileged term if ever we’ve created one) is completely foreign, an utterly broken concept. How can a man “adult” when he’s just emerged from 21 years in prison into a world full of new technology and oldprejudices? How can he navigate the ups and downs of finding a job, a home, a new life? Even with help, it can be overwhelming.
Chris is a graduate of Turning Leaf, and this is the story of how he succeeds, one day at a time.
* * * *
“When the judge handed me 300 months, I thought, man, what is 300 months?” Chris went to the legal library in prison to unravel that mystery, and when he realized it translated to 25 years, all he could think was, “Man, I don’t know how I’m going to do it.”
“You’re thinking about your family,” he says. “Your mom, your dad, your kids. I’m wondering who I’m going to lose.” Plus you suddenly find yourself waking up in prison, day in and day out. There, you have to navigate politics and alliances, who you’ll spend time with, and what gang, if any, you’ll join.
Chris survived by trying to stay outside of the fray and keeping his head down. He went to work and took classes. He worked out. He focused on trying to better himself.
Slowly, the years passed. As Chris approached his release at the end of his 21st year, he grew nervous. He would be remanded to Charleston, South Carolina, across the country from where he grew up in California, far from family and friends. He wouldn’t know anyone. How would he be able to re-start his life, completely on his own?
Now, he looks at that distance as a blessing. It gave him a chance to rely on himself. He had to stay in a halfway house for the first six months, but then he wanted his own place. Had he been in California, it would have been too easy to stay with family or old friends (even a female friend). He recognized that would have been an unnecessary complication, and one that could have caused trouble. “You just got through sharing a room with somebody for 21 years,” he says, laughing. “You need your own space.” And as for the ladies, he says, “after 21 years in prison, you’re not ready to jump into a relationship.”
Questions weighed him down, though. “Can I get a job? Can I get my own place? When you get out the probation officers and the government make all these promises, like they’ll help you. They told me they’d give me money for rent and all that but they didn’t.” Chris was on his own.
He’d been in the halfway house for a week, looking for a job without success, when another resident told him about the Turning Leaf Project. That resident was already a student here, and, says Chris, “he told me it was the best place for me. I’d get all the support I’d need.” Chris interviewed at Turning Leaf, was accepted, and dove into the program.
It was daunting at times. “The first few weeks, the classroom was kind of a stumbling block,” he says. “The skits and stuff. It was something new for sure. But it was a good experience. It allowed me to see things before they happen, to manage situations.”
His hardest moment came when he had to talk to the class about his aunt. She’d just passed away after a long battle with cancer, and he hadn’t been able to see her before she died. “She passed right when I got out,” he says. “She didn’t want to see anybody, but I’d have tried to see her. We FaceTimed once or twice. We used to text every day but when those texts stopped coming I knew it was a limited time. Before you know it, it was over.” Talking to the class about it was hard, but he held his composure. “I did what I had to do. I couldn’t let her death effect what I’m trying to do here.”
He loved the environment of Turning Leaf. “People here show you a lot of respect,” he says. “Then they look for you to show it back. It’s not like in prison, where respect is a one-way street.” To Chris, Turning Leaf was “a breath of fresh air. Seeing what it’s like to be in the workforce, when you’ve never been in it before. It feels good to work a job and pay the bills.”
Since graduating from Turning Leaf, Chris has moved on to a new job with an electric company. “It’s got good people and it’s a good organization. They pay me enough to support myself.” He has his own apartment but had to use all his savings to get it. Still, it’s all his.
Life isn’t without challenges, of course. Something as simple as getting a driver’s license can be enormously complicated after prison. Chris had to go all the way to California to get a printout of his driving record since they couldn’t get a copy of it in South Carolina. Even now, his license is still suspended due to an alias he used decades ago. He’s waiting to hear what he needs to do to fix it, but these things take time. In the meantime, his ride to and from work costs $18 each way through Lyft. Turning Leaf is helping him pay that expense.
He uses the skills he learned both through a program in prison and in Turning Leaf to navigate the day-to-day challenges. He’s learned how to manage expectations and situations to avoid arguments as best as he can. “My expectation is that we all have opinions,” he says. “But some people think your opinion doesn’t count. You have to manage a situation so you don’t argue with them. Arguments lead to you saying something you really don’t mean. Now I just say, ‘You might be onto something’ instead of debating.”
Recently, a minor disagreement with a coworker came up during his 90-day review. His boss said she thought he had been too aggressive. Chris felt like he was in the right, and he worried the negative feedback would affect his raise. Perhaps, in the past, he’d have tried to argue his point, to prove he was right. However, this time, he sat back, evaluated his situation, decided to hear his boss out. He came away from the review with his raise.
“Without Turning Leaf it may have been different,” he says. “I don’t let a lot bother me now. I felt picked on, and I thought she was going to use it as an excuse not to give me my raise, but she was just giving me something to work on, which was cool. I might have sounded aggressive to that guy, or maybe he took it wrong. I’m learning from it.”
He gets feedback from females, too, saying he doesn’t show enough emotions. “They don’t understand,” he says. “Doing 21 years, you don’t show emotions. You’ve got to control them, keep them in check. I’m trying to work on it, but it ain’t going to happen overnight.”
Since getting out of prison nine months ago, he’s gone to California three times. The first trip, he saw his father for the first time in 21 years. Kidney and liver problems had left him weak and frail, and Chris is trying to help him get back on track with his treatments. He’s improving steadily now.
Chris also got to see his daughter and her baby girl. “It was a happy moment,” he says. “She had a big smile; she’d missed her dad. We have bond. I was the first person who saw her when she came out. I cut the cord.” Now he has a chance to continue building on that bond, visiting whenever he can. He’s a proud grandfather. “She’s a lot,” he says of his granddaughter. “She’s real beautiful. She looks like her mom and her dad. She’s real active, trying to sit up when she’s only three months old. It was hard to leave, but now I’m getting all these memories back.”
Life after prison has its ups and downs, but Chris is ready for it. “I see the responsibility now,” he says. “Back in the day, I didn’t think the responsibility was mine. I was gonna do what I wanted to do. But I see it now. If I don’t do what I need to do, it can be a real risky situation.”
“I’m a man that came from a place where you sometimes don’t make it. Anything can happen there. But life still goes on, and it doesn’t stop when you go to prison. But I’m a straight up guy. I’m forward and honest. My word is my bond, and respect has to be mutual.”
*. * * *
We’re so proud of how far you’ve come, Chris. We’re thrilled you get to spend the rest of your life making new memories!