Here's what we hope for today — that Raekwon Newman, age 19, fully understands that he's much better off with a rake in his hands than with a gun. Nothing about that means he'll spend the rest of his life raking mulch. It just means his pursuit of happiness will likely go better if he stays on the path he's on now — no concealed weapon, and a job with a company run by men who care about him.
He doesn't need me to tell him that. Newman appears to have figured this out on his own.
First of all, he really likes Natural Concerns, the Baltimore County landscaping company that gave him a job despite his arrest on a handgun charge last summer. "It's a great company," Newman says. "They treat you like family. The owner knows all the employees by name."
Good. But what about his off hours? Newman is still a teenager, still at risk of slipping into trouble again. I asked if he was being careful about the company he keeps, and this is what the young man said:
"I go to work at 6 in the morning, I finish at 5:30. I'm so tired I don't want to go outside. I just want to shower, get my sandwich and go to sleep. So that's what I do on Friday. And then Saturday comes, and I'm so sore, that's my day of rest. And then Sunday comes, and people ask me, 'Come on, Raekwon, you wanna go out?' I say, 'I can't, I gotta work the next day.'"
That's how he beats back the various temptations that come to a young guy in Baltimore, particularly in the Belair-Edison neighborhood on the northeast side. By the looks of things, he's come a long way since last summer, when city police officers arrested him for illegal possession of a handgun and ammunition.
Newman tells me he had the gun for personal protection.
But all he got was a criminal record and two years of visits to a probation officer.
Something happened to get him on a better course.
Maybe it was getting arrested — that'll do it for some guys.
Or maybe meeting Roland Harvey made the difference.
Harvey, a jockey-size man with a big heart, is founder of Natural Concerns. He's been in the landscaping business since the 1980s. He started with a wheelbarrow, a shovel, a pickup truck and a nascent love of landscaping. Today he has 50 employees and a busy company with residential customers in the city and county.
I met Harvey a few months ago. He's one of many people who've contacted me over the years with regard to ex-offenders, men coming out of prison who need jobs.
Usually, the people who call are those looking for work, and they've had a tough time getting steady employment since getting home; they find that their criminal records are barriers to good jobs.
It's rare that an employer calls to say he wants to get in the game of second chances.
In Harvey's case, he was already there, but looking to extend his reach.
Natural Concerns will hire people in recovery from addictions. It's something Harvey, his general manager, George Goodhues, and operations manager, Luke Cooper, carefully and earnestly practice. Second and third chances are part of the company's ethic.
A prospective employee has to be honest about his past. Like most companies, Natural Concerns gets criminal record checks on applicants. But a rocky background does not immediately end the discussion.
Goodhues and Harvey have had personal struggles with alcohol; they understand the profound and potentially life-changing effect of a decent job and a supportive workplace. It takes extra effort — more than most companies are willing to exert — and there are many disappointments.
"But, overall, for all the years we've been doing this," says Goodhues, "the average tenure of people we've hired who are in recovery is measured in years, not in months."
Over the winter, I spoke with Harvey and Goodhues about their next ambition — to keep growing their company so they can extend hiring to young men and women who've grown up in what we generally call "at-risk" Baltimore — at risk of dropping out of school, at risk of violence, at risk of a life of permanent poverty or prison.
Which brings us back to Newman.
Harvey met him last fall through a mentorning non-profit in Baltimore and was immediately impressed, so he offered him a job.
"He's awesome," Harvey says. "He's enthusiastic," says Cooper.
Each weekday, Newman catches the No. 22 bus from Belair-Edison to Hampden, where Dan Feingold, a member of the Natural Concerns staff, meets him and gives him a ride to the company's morning muster, at a truck yard in Sparks. From there, it's out to a customer site, with a rake in his hands.