If you had asked me what I wanted out of life when I was 16, I would have just shrugged my shoulders at you. I wouldn’t have had any answers to questions about my future. I didn’t have dreams. – Nick, age 27
In 2016, Free Minds member Nick came home after serving 10 years in federal prison for a crime committed as a juvenile. We met him a decade ago, at the DC Jail. He wasn’t surprised to find himself on the DC Jail’s juvenile unit at the age of 16, on his way to prison.
“I felt like all my life I was always messing up. Even when things were going good, I knew sooner or later, I would ruin it. So yeah, when I’d lie in my bunk in jail and fall asleep, I was hoping I’d wake up and the whole thing would be a dream. But no, I wasn’t surprised to be there,” he says.
As a child, Nick and his mother lived on Florida Avenue– an area rife with drugs and crime. “This was when [notorious DC drug kingpin] Rayful Edmond was out there and my neighborhood was wild and rambunctious,” he says.
Nick’s mother was poor and overwhelmed. She didn’t feel capable of raising a child. When he was 5, she dropped him off at a Social Services building and got on a bus bound for New York City. Nick soon went to live with his father.
“He’s not even my biological father, but my mom named me for him so he and his mother took me in. They cared for me, but the only thing I wanted was to live with my mom.” When he was 9 years old, he returned to his mother. Just two days later though, Child Protective Services called and ordered Nick into foster care. His mother had succumbed to a crack cocaine addiction.
“My foster mother used to beat me and hit me in the face. She’d keep me home from school because she didn’t want the teachers to see my bruises. She locked me in a dark bedroom all day long. I found this big box of Dr. Seuss books and I would sit in that room and read them. When she saw me reading though, she took away the books. That experience was worse than anything that ever happened to me during 10 years in prison!”
When the foster mother would take the other children on field trips, she would leave Nick behind. “She used to call me monkey and tell me my mother wasn’t sh*t, and that nobody wanted me.”
After a year in the foster home, thankfully, Nick was adopted by his godmother. Often, when he would go outside with friends, Nick would see his mother up the street. He wouldn’t give up on her. “At night, I used to sneak out of the house and look for my mother. We’d sit down on the street corner and talk. I knew she was high, but all I wanted was for her to get herself together so I could live with her. I remember in 8th grade, we were getting ready for graduation and I asked my mom if she could come. She said she would most definitely be there. I was so excited. But when the day came, I looked out into the audience and she wasn’t there. I found out later that she was out getting high and forgot what day it was. That hurt me.” Eventually his mother would get locked up and serve 7 years for carjacking.
At 15, Nick began stealing cars himself. When he was in the 10th grade, Nick got caught and went to Oak Hill (DC’s former juvenile detention facility) for six months. After his release, he and his friends moved on to carjacking. This led to Nick being arrested, charged as an adult, and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
“When I first met Free Minds, I was just shut down. It was a relief to get out of my cell and Free Minds had a positive vibe. But my reading skills were terrible. I was so scared to read in front of people, thinking I wouldn’t be able to pronounce a word.”
Eventually, Nick did read Cooked, Jeff Henderson’s memoir about becoming a celebrity chef after a long stint in California state prison. The book excited and encouraged him and he began dreaming of a career as a caterer. Then he read Hill Harper’s Letters to an Incarcerated Brother. “That book spoke to me. It was like we were having a conversation and he was preparing me to come home!” Nick says.
By the time he was released last year, Nick had put together detailed plans for a catering business and his own nonprofit to serve at-risk youth. He applied for more jobs than he can count, his chances often getting doomed by a background check. Nick didn’t give up though. He eventually landed a job as a caterer at a retirement community in Delaware. Now back in DC, he’s working as a behavioral aide and a grocery store clerk.
As if that weren’t enough, Nick is also an active Poet Ambassador with Free Minds, speaking several times a week at outreach events around the city to share his story and bring a message of nonviolence to other young people.
His master plan includes getting a college degree at UDC in human services and building a catering business that will hire kids who’ve been in foster care, giving them job skills training and work experience. “These kids are lonely and they feel like there is nobody out there who cares about them. I want to be that person who steps up to let them know I will be there.”
Nick’s mother is sober now and they have built a strong relationship together. He has a young son; Nick is a loving father and works hard to stop the cycle of youth incarceration.
Nick hopes his legacy will be as a person who gave back to his community. “I want people to say I helped homeless people, families that couldn’t provide for their kids, and children who didn’t have anyone else. I hope to be remembered as someone who didn’t judge people for their race, religion or sexual orientation. I hope they’ll say that I just helped people, 100%!”
In November 2017, Nick won an award from the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, recognizing his hard work and perseverance in reentry. Free Minds could not be more proud of the beautifully positive legacy Nick is creating!