Antoin Quarles, 49, grew up in West Baltimore, and started using and selling drugs when he was just 12.
He didn’t have responsible adults to look up to growing up, he said. His mom, Kim, put him up for adoption before his grandparents took him in.
He didn’t meet his father, Earnest Thomas, until he was 14, he said.
Between 1998 and 2014 he was in and out of prison, mostly for selling drugs, including a 20-year sentence at 17 for handgun violations and possession of controlled substances.
At one point after being arrested, he was sent to a drug rehabilitation program, and later worked for a notebook company in Baltimore. One day he received bad news: He was being fired for failing a background check.
“After that, I was like, ‘Here you go again. Nobody wants to hire me — guess I’m back in the streets and do what I do best,’” he said.
Instead, in 2017, Quarles founded H.O.P.E., short for Helping Oppressed People Excel, in Mount Vernon. The organization helps formerly incarcerated people re-enter society, with services including housing, education and job training. Quarles serves as the group’s CEO.
Black people, who make up 31% of Maryland’s population, comprised more than 70% of the state’s prison population in 2019. Maryland’s population of Black prisoners is more than twice the national average of 32%.
In 2017, of the 18 people who enrolled in H.O.P.E., five received housing and 10 got hired, according to the organization’s website. None of them violated parole. In 2020, 12 people enrolled, eight received housing and 10 got hired, the website also said.
H.O.P.E. is among several organizations that will receive grant money from a $30 million campaign launched by Baltimore Corps, which matches volunteers to organizations that need them, to expand existing services and create jobs.
The campaign, funded through national and local foundations, the City of Baltimore and the federal government, will spend $10 million a year. Half of the money each year will go to local hospitals — such as the Johns Hopkins Hospital and federal workforce agency AmeriCorps — to pay for the salaries of health care workers and the rest will go to organizations like H.O.P.E., said Fagan Harris, president and CEO of Baltimore Corps.
Harris said the organization wanted to make a large investment to mark Baltimore Corps’ 10th anniversary.
When Quarles, who now lives in Mount Vernon, got out of prison in 2014, part of getting paroled was showing the commissioners that he can become a better person, he said. His goal was to create opportunities for the youth, such as basketball leagues and back-to-school activities.
When his friend Dana Harris, 47, was released from jail in 2015 after serving time for a conspiracy for organized crime charge, Quarles told him there was a better way to live.
Harris, of West Baltimore, said H.O.P.E. helped get him hired in 2019 as a facilitator manager at TouchPoint Baltimore, which provides services around social justice education and workforce development as well as financial literacy.
“H.O.P.E. changed my life. I was a drug dealer. I was known for using guns and drugs,” he said. “I sit in multimillion-dollar meetings now. It’s crazy.”
Derris Moore, 40, who helped start H.O.P.E., echoed Harris.
Moore, who was sentenced to 25 years for armed robbery, was released from prison in 2015.
H.O.P.E. helped him stay grounded, said Moore, who got his commercial driver’s license with the help of the organization.
He said he didn’t think he’d make it to 40, let alone be married with a baby on the way.
“I’ve been blessed, and I’m very happy. I mean, coming from a life where I probably got locked up my first time when I was 11,” he said. “And every year from 11, and I believe I was 22 when I caught that time, I was in jail almost once or twice every year to now not at all in the past 6 years.”
This article is part of our Newsmaker series, which profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor Kamau High at firstname.lastname@example.org.