Friday, March 09, 2007

Hope is alive!

I was at home getting ready to go to work yesterday morning when I got a knock at my door. Through the peek hole I recognized the tall, slender guy and the way he shifted his weight back and forth. It was Kevin and I hadn't seen him in a very long time.

I met Kevin when he was probably 15 or 16. I don't even remember how or why. Maybe he and his friends came to church a few times. He came in and out of my life for various reasons. His entire family is/was caught up in drugs. When he was around 17, I tried to get he and his cousin re-enrolled in school because they had moved and his sister, who was his guardian, was too hooked on drugs to care if they got back in school or not. Kevin explained to me that 22 people lived in their economy apartment. At 6'1", his bed was the bathtub.

He ended up dropping out of school.

I lost track of him again until he was caught and charged with possession, or something to that effect. He went to jail for a while. He got out. He messed up again. He went back to jail. He got out...this time with 10 years probation, a lot of probation fees, and an assignment to a treatment center.

I remember driving him to the treatment center. I'll never forget our conversation. As we talked about what he needed to do to make his life different he explained with a sense of resignation and defeat, "Janet, drugs are all I've known since I was 6 months old!"

He completed the treatment center, but ended up back in the system...this time prison...only months later. He served his time from 2002-2004. So he's been out for 3 years now. Every once in a while I wonder how he's doing. I know the rest of his family hasn't changed. His sister is still strung out and his cousins still sell.

As I invited him into my house, he offered me a hug and then sat down in the living room to tell me what he's been up to. Last time we talked, he had gotten a job at Walmart. He still has that job. It's been almost a year now and in a few more weeks he will be up for his first vacation. He explained that he is now making $9.45 and hour...up from the $8 something he started at. You could tell he was very proud of his incremental raises over the last year. He is now "off papers"...meaning he no longer has to make regular visits to his parole officer.

Kevin explained to me that each time he went back to jail or prison he truly wanted to do the right thing when he got out. But going back to his family...the people he knows best...always landed him in trouble. It takes a lot of courage to figure out how to break free from that. He is working to change his reality:

In 2000, 65 percent of black male high school dropouts in their 20s were jobless - unable to find work, not seeking it or incarcerated.

By 2004, the share had grown to 72 percent, compared with 34 percent of white dropouts and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts.

Even when high school graduates were included, half of black men in their 20s were jobless in 2004, up from 46 percent in 2000.

Incarceration rates climbed in the 1990s and reached historic highs in the last few years. In 1995, 16 percent of black men in their 20s who did not attend college were in jail or prison; by 2004, 21 percent were incarcerated. By their mid-30s, 6 in 10 black men who dropped out of school have spent time in prison.

In the inner cities, more than half of all black men do not finish high school.

Kevin is 27 years old. He is right in the age range for all of those statistics. He's still got a long, tough road ahead, but so far he's on the right path and he's doing a great job.

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