Jan. 3, 2006, was the day. It was 10 in the morning when I boarded an old Greyhound bus for the hour-long ride back to Baltimore. It was brutally cold that day, and the wind was howling, but I didn’t care because I was headed home. I had just been released from a federal prison in New Jersey, and I couldn’t wait to get back to the Westside — a place that I knew well.
I was anxious to get there, but still, I had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I was afraid because the only way I knew how to make a living at the time was selling heroin to people suffering from the disease of addiction.
But, before I left that federal prison in Jersey, I received an unexpected gift. An inmate from Baltimore had shown me an article written in The Baltimore Sun about an organization in the city that assisted men who had been released from prison with developing job skills and finding employment. I ripped out the article and tucked it in my pocket. The reality was I knew I couldn’t return to the treacherous underground drug economy in Baltimore. I heard the rumors about this thing called the “recidivism rate,” which was haunting black men and I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.
On the afternoon I arrived back in Baltimore, I remember looking out on the landscape of this strange new world. It was Baltimore, but it had changed dramatically. I was excited about returning, and yet I still wanted to run far away. I wasn’t sure if I could face the challenge that I feared could engulf me.
After 10 days of being confined in a halfway house in East Baltimore I thought about the article I had stashed in my bag about the Center for Urban Families, the nonprofit organization that assisted men after their release from prison.
You would think that a guy who had spent a total of almost 12 years behind the fence with killers and sociopaths wouldn’t be afraid of anything, but that just wasn’t the case. We learned years ago how to hide such emotions from the rest of the world because we believed that fear was a mental state that only the “weak” possessed.
In 2006 I signed up and began attending a program at the Center for Urban Families, where I learned how to let my guard down and remove the mask. The staff there gave me and many other men a safe space to talk about our fears, our insecurities and the struggle of leaving the past behind. That’s when I grew and evolved. It was the staff there who helped us turn the corner. And once we fixed us, the sky was the limit. Learning how to apply soft skills, computer skills and interpersonal skills aided us in finding meaningful employment and legal ways to earn a living.
Don’t get me wrong because I still have challenges, but those challenges would be a lot harder and more complex if it wasn’t for the support system I began to develop a dozen years ago at the nonprofit on Monroe Street in West Baltimore.
Today, I’ve written four books and conducted over 50 speaking engagements at colleges and universities across the country. I’ve spoken in London, Ireland and the U.S. Virgin Islands. I’ve consulted with the White House on criminal justice reform, and I’m currently an associate at Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health.
I can honestly say that without the support of the staff and the resources of the Center for Urban Families, I don’t know how my life would have turned out. Yes, I had to write the books, prepare for the speaking engagements and do the other hard work that mattered, but I was once a broken man who needed to be fixed, repaired and put back together again, gradually, like a puzzle, and that’s where CFUF played an important role in my survivor story.
This month, CFUF celebrates 20 years of providing service to many other returning citizens who, like me, needed a process and a plan to build a new life. Their work has served as a national model, and there are hundreds of survivor stories right here in Baltimore.
For that, I am forever grateful. We should all be.
Kevin Shird is an author and associate at Johns Hopkins University; his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.