Gratitude for second chances

Thanks to those who try to make life better for all of us by making life better for themselves. There are still too many homicides in Baltimore - though, at 242, not as many as the 259 last year at this time - and too many men and women addicted to heroin and cocaine. But there are people among us trying to get to a better place in their lives, away from the addictions that create the drug market that begets so much of the violence, and out of unemployment, crime and prison. We should praise and thank them for their efforts, against tough odds, because therein lies the progress of a city, a state and a nation - one man, one woman at a time.

Kenneth Johnson An East Baltimore resident, Johnson used heroin and was involved in its sale for many years. He did this while maintaining legitimate jobs, including one as a roofer. Arrested several times in the 1990s, he spent at least six of his 43 years behind bars for drug distribution.

When he first contacted The Sun in June, Johnson said he had been out of prison for several months, had stopped using drugs and wanted a job. Like many of the city's recovering addicts in their 40s, Johnson had a difficult time getting hired because of his background. But he expressed determination to stay off the streets. "I can't do that again," he said of prison. "I can't go back there."

A reader took an interest in Johnson and, through many telephone conversations, became something of a mentor to him. He helped Johnson connect with the Baltimore development company of Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse. In late summer, company officials conducted four interviews with Johnson before giving him a position as a maintenance man at one of their many properties.

Johnson, who lives with his mother, has been on the job now for nearly two months. He goes to a regular meeting of others in recovery and keeps in weekly contact with the man who helped him land the job. "Things are going well," Johnson says. "And I'm back in touch with my family, my grandkids."

Craig Wright "You know what makes me feel normal?" Wright says. "Just going to the market, shopping for Thanksgiving, and coming home with groceries. It doesn't mean much to other people, but it does to me, more than ever."

Wright, 35, had sold drugs and used drugs for several years. He went to prison for it, the last time in the late 1990s. He got out in 2001 and had a series of what he considered dead-end jobs. He enrolled in the STRIVE Baltimore program to get help as an ex-offender in the job hunt. In September, he and five other former drug dealers went to work for a company called TLC Excavation. They make $10 an hour as site laborers.

"It's the first job I've really been content with," says Wright, who praises the company for giving him and his co-workers a chance to prove themselves reliable. "I'm really thankful for the job. I'm thankful that I'm not out on the streets, rippin' and runnin', looking over my shoulder to see if the police are gonna lock me, or someone's gonna kill me. I wake up with peace of mind. And my mother is proud of me. She's not worried about whether her son is going to wind up in a grave or in prison."

The job with TLC came with a bonus for Wright - a co-worker introduced him to a woman named Tonya Carroll. They're an item now.

"Craig is a hard-working, focused man with goals and structure," Tonya Carroll wrote in a note to The Sun last week. "I was not looking for a relationship in all of this, but I must say I would not trade these wonderful days for nothing.

"We all wanted to say thank you. Mr. Tim and Ms. Linda, from TLC Construction, deserve a standing ovation for their commitment to these men. They pick them up for work. They provide structure, and they respect them as men. They treat them like family."

Gerald Patterson Since the summer day when he first contacted The Sun, Patterson landed and lost a job he liked at a supermarket warehouse in Southwest Baltimore. The position was great, Patterson declared in August, because it paid better than his former job at Jiffy Lube and provided medical benefits after 60 days. What he didn't know was that warehouse supervisors were clocking and scoring how fast he picked and loaded items for delivery. Apparently, Patterson didn't work fast enough; he was a couple of points short of a passing grade.

Told he could give it another try after a 10-day interval, Patterson has reapplied for the warehouse job.

In the meantime, he's working for his brother's new home improvement company; Patterson likes the work, thinks it might turn into something lasting.

At 37, Patterson was last incarcerated four years ago, and last sold drugs in 2002. He and his wife live in West Baltimore with Patterson's grandmother. One day, when work is steady and they can manage to save some money, they hope to own a house.

"I'm thankful just to be alive and trying to do the right thing," Patterson says. "And I have my wife, and she supports me. I'm out of prison, I have prospects now. I'm not going back to the street. Things are gonna be all right."

Andrea Frazier She called here in summer, desperate for treatment for heroin addiction. The man she lives with called, too. They were frustrated with the long wait for help. Some window had opened in Frazier's thinking and she was reaching through it, and what she needed was someone to immediately take her hand.

She entered a residential treatment center in West Baltimore, but left there after a few days, convinced she wasn't getting the attention she needed. When I spoke to her in September, she sounded grouchy and confused. By October, however, Frazier, 38, had been through successful treatment at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, and sounded upbeat about her recovery.

Paul Howell Unlike most of the men and women who contacted The Sun for help this summer and fall, several years - nine, to be precise - had passed since Howell's last incarceration. That increased considerably his chances of landing a job. Still, he had had difficulty finding a position he considered "steady and substantial."

Because of his past in Baltimore's heroin-and-cocaine underworld - "Stealing and selling drugs, trying to support my habit" - Howell, 53, says many employers did not trust him. "People were scared to give me a chance," he says. "And my family was always afraid I was gonna slip back to my old ways because I didn't have anything substantial."

On a referral from The Sun, Howell landed a job with the Time Group, a property management company with clear and stringent policies on the hiring of ex-offenders. That Howell had not run afoul of the law in nearly a decade worked in his favor. He now reports at 8:30 a.m. daily and works in maintenance at one of the company's properties in the Baltimore area. He's happy with the work, and the company is pleased with him.

"They were very understanding when they hired me," Howell says. "I'm employed with a good company. My wife and my family are proud of me. I'm trying to be a responsible husband to my wife and a responsible father to my children."

Chuck Waters Waters, who turns 42 in a couple of weeks, knows he's lucky to be alive. He was once embedded in Baltimore's drug culture, selling heroin and cocaine in the 1980s and 1990s, when the city's drug-related homicide count was even worse than it is today. Waters survived the killing streets. He went to prison, smartened up and got out of drugs for good 10 years ago.

Unfortunately, one of his nephews followed in his footsteps, and that young man's journey ended tragically. Someone shot 24-year- old Ricky Waters on West Pratt Street at 1 a.m. on a winter Saturday a couple of years ago. His death was reported in three thin paragraphs in The Sun, one of 271 Baltimore killings in 2003. "He was caught up in that life," Chuck Waters says, referring to the same life he once lived - but managed to escape.

Waters has been clean and steadily employed since shortly after leaving prison in 1997. He remains grateful to Alan Hess, who gave Waters his first job as a maintenance man at properties in West Baltimore. "He gave me a chance and trusted me," Waters says. "I worked for him for four years and moved on with his blessings."

Remarried and the father of two children, Waters managed to buy a house in Northeast Baltimore a couple of years ago. He has worked for a manufacturer in Halethorpe for six years. He joined a Pimlico church "to keep my promise to God that I made in prison."

"I'm thankful for my life, my family," he says. "I'm grateful for knowing God better, so I can serve God better. I'm no longer a menace to society. I'm grateful to my family. I had a lot of people praying for me."

Waters believes that ex-offenders, once drug-free, deserve opportunities to prove themselves in the workplace. "But they must remember," he says, "when making a promise to the system, to their mother, family or God, they must be honest and not return to their past life of drugs and crime."

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