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.

Story captured by Leah Rhyne

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