LIVING DRUG-FREE, feeling part of the working world and the progress ofyour city, making $10 an hour for a new company owned by people who believe insecond chances, knowing your relatives are glad to see you and that yourneighbors might even respect you - all that beats hustling heroin for $50 aday. Any way you measure it, the lives of Thomas Willis, Ricky Smith, SeanWright, Craig Wright, William Taylor and Melvin Richardson are better at thestart of September than they were at the start of August - and so, by a smallincrement, is the quality of life in Baltimore.
One man, one step at a time - that's how we get out of thisheroin-and-homicide mess.
These six men are not dealing dope today, nor are they sitting idly in arowhouse thinking about returning to that life. They are not hanging out withold homies and hopheads, aimless and lost, frustrated and depressed. They arenot taking up space in prison cells - at $24,000 a year in Maryland taxpayerexpense.
What we found yesterday morning, on a large triangle of land on KeyHighway, were six men in yellow hard hats, working up a sweat for anexcavating company.
Four of the men had called The Sun this summer for help in finding workafter years of selling drugs or being addicted to them. The other two, WilliamTaylor and Craig Wright, were already enrolled in STRIVE Baltimore, theprogram that helps ex-offenders re-enter the working world, when The Sunlearned of the job opportunities and passed the information along to STRIVEstaff.
All of these men said they had sold drugs at one time or another inBaltimore. All but one, Sean Wright, said he had been addicted. Each man hadspent time in prison, and all found their criminal records a huge obstacle inthe hunt for a job and a new start.
It was a new company headed by a woman that gave these men a second chance.
The company is TLC Excavating, incorporated last fall and headed by LindaChriest. Its current project is the demolition of an old gasoline station andthe excavation of a large tract on Key Highway in Locust Point. A huge amountof soil will be removed to prepare the site. A carwash, gas station andconvenience store will be built on it.
The Key Highway job is one of several TLC has lined up in its first year ofoperation.
"I had come out of a bad marriage, and I needed to start over," saysChriest. "I was with my daughter. I was renovating a little house. I was goingto open a restaurant."
But it was Tim Walker, an experienced heavy-equipment operator (and now herfiance), who convinced Chriest she could establish a company to perform sitework. One relatively small job for a concrete company helped TLC get started,and now Chriest's concern is bidding on excavation, demolition, clearing,grading, sediment control and paving contracts.
TLC contacted The Sun to say it was willing to give a second chance to someof the ex-offenders, former drug dealers and recovering addicts profiled inthis space since June. The Sun sent them candidates and, in MelvinRichardson's case, passed along a resume. STRIVE pointed the men to TLC, too.
"We want them to come in and grow with the company," Chriest said, whoadded that she'd like to line up more projects in Baltimore because most ofher new workers, all city residents, rely on public bus lines to get to work.
Among those who took the early bus to the site yesterday was Thomas Willis.He was still wearing a home detention device - the Martha Stewart anklet - ashe toiled in the dirt.
When we first spoke in July, Willis said he was determined not to return toprison or to the city's drug culture. He had been lost in that life for years,addicted to heroin and estranged from his family.
It was the dying wish of a younger brother, Howard, that Willis' mother andtwo sisters "go help Tommy." They did as asked, and now Willis lives in hismother's house in Northeast Baltimore. He went through the STRIVE Baltimoreprogram, and he landed the job with TLC last week.
The job pays $10 an hour. "I'd have taken it if it paid $7 an hour," Willissays.
He wanted anything but his old life in the heroin hustle -- $50 a day, plusregular arrests and hitches in prison.
When we spoke in June, Sean Wright, 36, was desperate for work and dejectedabout not being able to support his family. Released from prison in 2003 afterserving time on drug convictions, he found a decent job in a supermarketwarehouse in Jessup. But he lost it in May after being arrested on anoutstanding warrant for an old motor vehicle violation - something from hispast breaking his flow into the future. Wright was glad to have the yellowhard hat yesterday.
Same with Ricky Smith, 40, who had experienced many years of heroinaddiction, recovery and relapse, prison and work-release, before finallygetting on a good track in May.
William Taylor sees the TLC job as "the stepping stone" back to the work hereally loves - as a cook in a restaurant or hotel kitchen.
One step at a time, one man at a time.