LIVING DRUG-FREE, feeling part of the working world and the progress of your city, making $10 an hour for a new company owned by people who believe in second chances, knowing your relatives are glad to see you and that your neighbors might even respect you - all that beats hustling heroin for $50 a day. Any way you measure it, the lives of Thomas Willis, Ricky Smith, Sean Wright, Craig Wright, William Taylor and Melvin Richardson are better at the start of September than they were at the start of August - and so, by a small increment, is the quality of life in Baltimore.
One man, one step at a time - that's how we get out of this
What we found yesterday morning, on a large triangle of land on Key
Highway, were six men in yellow hard hats, working up a sweat for an
Four of the men had called The Sun this summer for help in finding work
after years of selling drugs or being addicted to them. The other two, William
Taylor and Craig Wright, were already enrolled in STRIVE Baltimore, the
program that helps ex-offenders re-enter the working world, when The Sun
learned of the job opportunities and passed the information along to STRIVE
All of these men said they had sold drugs at one time or another in
Baltimore. All but one, Sean Wright, said he had been addicted. Each man had
spent time in prison, and all found their criminal records a huge obstacle in
the hunt for a job and a new start.
It was a new company headed by a woman that gave these men a second chance.
The company is TLC Excavating, incorporated last fall and headed by Linda
Chriest. Its current project is the demolition of an old gasoline station and
the excavation of a large tract on Key Highway in Locust Point. A huge amount
of soil will be removed to prepare the site. A carwash, gas station and
convenience store will be built on it.
The Key Highway job is one of several TLC has lined up in its first year of
"I had come out of a bad marriage, and I needed to start over," says
Chriest. "I was with my daughter. I was renovating a little house. I was going
to open a restaurant."
But it was Tim Walker, an experienced heavy-equipment operator (and now her
fiance), who convinced Chriest she could establish a company to perform site
work. One relatively small job for a concrete company helped TLC get started,
and now Chriest's concern is bidding on excavation, demolition, clearing,
grading, sediment control and paving contracts.
TLC contacted The Sun to say it was willing to give a second chance to some
of the ex-offenders, former drug dealers and recovering addicts profiled in
this space since June. The Sun sent them candidates and, in Melvin
Richardson's case, passed along a resume. STRIVE pointed the men to TLC, too.
"We want them to come in and grow with the company," Chriest said, who
added that she'd like to line up more projects in Baltimore because most of
her new workers, all city residents, rely on public bus lines to get to work.
Among those who took the early bus to the site yesterday was Thomas Willis.
He was still wearing a home detention device - the Martha Stewart anklet - as
he toiled in the dirt.
When we first spoke in July, Willis said he was determined not to return to
prison or to the city's drug culture. He had been lost in that life for years,
addicted to heroin and estranged from his family.
It was the dying wish of a younger brother, Howard, that Willis' mother and
two sisters "go help Tommy." They did as asked, and now Willis lives in his
mother's house in Northeast Baltimore. He went through the STRIVE Baltimore
program, and he landed the job with TLC last week.
The job pays $10 an hour. "I'd have taken it if it paid $7 an hour," Willis
He wanted anything but his old life in the heroin hustle -- $50 a day, plus
regular arrests and hitches in prison.
When we spoke in June, Sean Wright, 36, was desperate for work and dejected
about not being able to support his family. Released from prison in 2003 after
serving time on drug convictions, he found a decent job in a supermarket
warehouse in Jessup. But he lost it in May after being arrested on an
outstanding warrant for an old motor vehicle violation - something from his
past breaking his flow into the future. Wright was glad to have the yellow
hard hat yesterday.
Same with Ricky Smith, 40, who had experienced many years of heroin
addiction, recovery and relapse, prison and work-release, before finally
getting on a good track in May.
William Taylor sees the TLC job as "the stepping stone" back to the work he
really loves - as a cook in a restaurant or hotel kitchen.
One step at a time, one man at a time.