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Ex-convict, former principal help at-risk Michigan youth

July 30, 2018

BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (AP) — Damon Brown posed a hypothetical for a group of five kids seated in front of him.

“What are the consequences if you rob somebody?” he asked.

“You could get locked up,” answered one of the kids gathered for a mentoring session at the Urban League of Battle Creek.

“And who would that affect?” Brown responded.

“You and your family.”

“And what about the person being robbed,” Brown added. “And how will it affect their family?”

Brown has had time to think about such scenarios. He’s had his own run-ins with the law.

The Battle Creek native spent 12 years in prison for selling crack cocaine after he was arrested as part of a federal drug sweep in 2001.

Before that, he was in a gang with a group of neighborhood friends that called themselves GBL (Gangsters By Law).

His best friend, Tremain Watson, was shot and killed in 1996. The following year, he witnessed another friend, Quincy Webb, get shot and killed.

He was charged with the murder of Jermel Smith in 1997, but released due to a lack of evidence. He has been shot at on multiple occasions. A scar from a bullet wound is still visible on his wrist.

“When I talk to these kids, I can pull up my sleeve and show them I’ve been shot before,” Brown told the Battle Creek Enquirer . “I’ve held one of my best friends in my arms with his brains hanging all over. I grew up with a mother who was on drugs. I did 12 years in prison. I know what this feels like. But I know the thinking that got me there.”

Brown takes accountability for the decisions he’s made, saying he put himself in prison. But it took years for him to understand how he came to make those decisions.

When he boarded “Con Air,” it was Brown’s first time on an airplane. He spent 10 years behind bars serving federal and state sentences that ran consecutive, with stops in Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Michigan before getting out in 2010. In 2012, he returned to prison for an additional two years after violating his parole.

“I tell everybody the two years were harder than the 10,” Brown said. “Because it was like deja vu. I put myself right back in the situation.”

Brown emerged from prison as a free man intent on becoming a new man.

The father of three and grandfather of one said he now has a “beautiful relationship” with his mother, who is going on her 17th year of sobriety. He has also formed a better connection with his father.

“Love those who love you, not the ones you love,” Brown said. “They’ve been showing it. Don’t tell me you love me, show me. I had to understand that on my second trip to prison. I’m living my life for the wrong reasons and the wrong people.”

After his second stint in prison, Brown was hired as a security guard at a local rehabilitation facility. His ability to connect with patients resulted in a promotion, eventually becoming a certified cognitive behavioral facilitator where he led group therapy sessions.

Brown also helped start up a Battle Creek chapter of the youth mentoring program called The Big Homies Club. This past school year, he volunteered to lead a bi-weekly social and emotional learning course at Northwestern Middle School, and is on pace to becoming a certified drug and alcohol counselor.

“I don’t want to let things I’ve been through or my family has been through be in vain,” Brown said. “It would be in vain if I was doing the same thing, in prison, doing life or dead. What was all this for?”

Brown’s latest venture is a program called Reintegration to Support and Empower or RISE. The aim is to help at-risk youth realize their potential by using life-altering strategies that address their social and emotional well-being.

Brown’s not doing it alone.

Tim Reese says he was “mischievous,” but was an otherwise good kid growing up in a two-parent household in Battle Creek.

He attended Western Michigan University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in physical education and health. While still in college, a friend helped land him a job at a juvenile home as a child care specialist. He then spent six years as an intensive probation officer for juvenile offenders before taking a job with a Battle Creek Public Schools program called Operation G.R.A.D.

Reese stayed in education for the past 29 years, working primarily at inner city schools, most recently as a middle school principal for Battle Creek Public Schools.

Sgt. Jeff Case of the Battle Creek Police Department is responsible for pairing Reese and Brown together. He said he “chased Damon around” when Brown was caught up in criminal activity, but saw how he was trying to turn his life around and help the younger generation avoid some of the same mistakes he made.

“I felt like Damon had a lot of good ideas and wanted to do the right thing,” Case said. “Enter Tim Reese, who has a probation (officer) history, a history in education and is polished in what he wanted to do. I felt like if I introduce them, we can have a good product. Damon had the drive, Tim could help focus that.”

Brown and Reese envision RISE becoming a three-phase, 12-month program to help juvenile offenders reintegrate into society upon release, as well as providing corrective steps for troubled students.

RISE has slowly been rolled out, with mentoring sessions held at the Calhoun County Juvenile Home. The official launch is set for Aug. 11 with a program at Clear Lake Camp in Dowling.

“This program became passionate to me and Damon because we bring a uniqueness,” Reese said. “He’s experienced it, I worked it. There’s things we both can bring to the table we feel that can be impactful, not just for the kids, but for the families as well.”

In June, Brown and Reese invited former convicts, a drug and alcohol counselor, educational and workplace consultants, the mother of a slain gun victim and others to listen to a presentation about RISE at the group’s current base of operations, the Urban League of Battle Creek.

Included in the group was Kevin Adams Sr., who grew up with Brown and also “fell deep into the streets.”

“My criminal history started early, around 13 (years old). Me and Damon... ended up taking some money from a kid at school and they called the police on us and we both ended up going to the juvenile home,” Adams said. “Not only were we looked at from that point by teachers and others as a certain type of group — thugs you would say — we grouped up with more kids our age that had similar troubles. We became sort of like a gang, hung out after school, smoked weed and drank.

“At that point, we were so deep into the streets, certain things seemed like a right of passage in the street-life mentality.”

Adams was federally indicted and convicted of selling crack cocaine in 2007, and, like his childhood friend, emerged from prison in 2014 with a new lease on life.

A married father of two and a grandfather of two, Adams found employment with Systex Products Corporation, where he now works as a production technician. He also serves as a mentor with The Big Homies Club.

“I just want to let those kids know that just because you’ve done something wrong, doesn’t mean you can’t contribute to society and make your wrongs right, whether it’s within yourself or in your community,” Adams said. “I want to right all the wrongs that I’ve done in my community.”

What Brown and Reese hope will make their program effective is their approach focusing on addressing the social and emotional issues in kids, especially those who have experienced some form of trauma.

Brown said that because he didn’t know how to deal with the pain of having a parent addicted to drugs, it would manifest itself in aggression and opposition to authority. Naturally, he gravitated to his peers who came up in similar circumstances.

“You’re hurting, trying to hurt other people,” Brown said. “You form that brotherhood and start dealing with these different issues in society. All dealing with this aggression, you get into trouble. From stealing candy, to now fights, now there is beef, now we’re talking about shootings and jail. It escalates.”

Brown and Reese have big visions of what RISE can accomplish. It now has 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, and partnerships with the Calhoun County Juvenile Home, the Calhoun Intermediate School District and Battle Creek Public Schools, with additional support from the Battle Creek Police Department and the Urban League of Battle Creek.

“We’re taking a population of kids right now that people are struggling with,” Reese said. “Trying to figure out what to deal with, and try to help give them some interventions and some strategies of how to tap into their own emotion, how to bond and build relationships, how to start feeling good about themselves and start trying to identify things that they want to do with their life. Because all of these kids have potential. Right now, we just need to allow them the ability to tap into it.”

Brown said a program like RISE is “past due” for Battle Creek, but he’s hopeful for what it can do for the entire community.

“It’s a dream of mine to work with the kids in the juvenile home. It’s a dream of mine to work with Battle Creek Public Schools, because I’ve been in these same situations these kids are in,” he said. “So for me personally, it’s full circle. I have a responsibility. It’s a passion and I want to do this for the rest of my life. I know this is what I have to do. Touching one kid or 100 kids, it’s all going to matter.”

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Information from: Battle Creek Enquirer, http://www.battlecreekenquirer.com

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