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Jailed Man Finds Brighter Future

October 4, 1999

DETROIT (AP) _ Antonio Rivera strutted through the door dripping with gold: gold necklaces, gold rings, gold earring. He talked in slang laced with vulgarities and an edge, the kind acquired during a life of dealing drugs and doing time.

Inside, he found Alex Montaner. And his future.

Rivera was searching for a new life, one with a respectable job that would help him be a better father. Montaner gave him GRACE _ Gang Retirement and Continued Education. The program trains troubled teens and ex-cons for 30 days in basic workplace and life skills, then helps them find jobs.

Two years later at age 26, the man who once commanded a $19,000-a-week drug trade says he is content making $13.50 an hour plus commissions selling plastic guardrails. He has a 1995 Camaro and three-bedroom house in the suburbs. He also has commitments to get his high school equivalency diploma and to marry the mother of his 7-year-old son.

On the job, he wears a polo shirt with the company logo and slacks and dress shoes, and talks eloquently of his turnaround. Away from it, he’s a family man who preaches his story to gang members and other troubled kids.

``When you sit down and look at it, being involved in gangs only leads to two places _ death or prison,″ he says. ``I know that what I’m doing I’m doing right. I proved myself, and I believe others can, too.″

This from a guy who once expected to die young, and violently. A ninth-grade dropout, Rivera was on the streets all night at age 12, running with a gang by 13 and peddling marijuana at 15 and crack cocaine at 17.

Along the way, Rivera collected a scar from a stab wound on his back along with five guns, convinced ``I’ve got to get them before they get me.″

And he kept it all secret from Nevia Nieves, a single mother who was on welfare and who feared for her four children in a neighborhood where the staccato of gunfire often had her diving for cover.

``I would spend hours on my knees crying out to God that when the phone would ring, I wouldn’t be called out to identify my boys,″ she says now.

Then it all imploded, and Rivera spent more than four years in prison on drug and weapons charges. It gave him plenty of time to think _ chiefly about his son, whose image and that of the boy’s mother are tattooed on his chest.

He decided to change.

But when he searched for a job after prison, he found employers had no interest in an ex-con who wore jeans, T-shirts and lots of cologne to job interviews. Rejected and dejected, he was tempted to return to the drug trade.

Then he met Montaner and impressed him with his dedication to being a responsible family man.

Enter GRACE, a program that teaches ex-gang members and ex-cons to write resumes, resolve conflicts without a gun, shake hands the conventional way rather than street way of rapid-fire grasps. They learn how to use an alarm clock, how not to wear tilted hats to job interviews.

Even some of their street skills get put to use. Through their dealings of drugs and guns, one-time kings of the streets are versed in business concepts like hierarchies, marketing and sales, security and strategy.

``There are a lot of skills that go into being a leader on the street,″ Montaner says. ``If you redirect that energy into the workforce, it can be positive and productive.″

But first, he says, ``They have to learn work ethics. We teach life skills in addition to work readiness.″

Rivera spent $300 for his first suit, a gray-and-black number that made him feel awkward until ``people told me I looked good in it. That gave me motivation.″ He bought dress shoes for $70.

GRACE refined his speech through language classes that he says ``helped get the ghetto out of me.″

``It was a struggle because words at first came out that I didn’t want to _ cussing words and things like that,″ he says. ``Changing the way I spoke didn’t come overnight.″

Today? ``He speaks like a very well-educated man. He has the vocabulary; it was just a matter of using it,″ says Angie Reyes of the Detroit Hispanic Development Corp., GRACE’s parent organization.

The temptation to revert to his former life has been tempered, he says, because most of his old friends are either in prison or facing charges.

And there’s his ultimate motivation: his son, Antonio.

``He loves his son with all his being,″ Rivera’s mother says. ``He has hurt like a parent now, so he understands.″

Rivera works at Ideal Shield in the Hispanic Manufacturing Center, a coalition of companies that has about 380 workers _ 20 percent, or about 75 of them ex-gang members or felons.

``We don’t give guys 86 chances,″ Ideal owner Frank Venegas says. ``But once they get the taste of money and the chance to be legitimate, it’s absolutely incredible what you come up with.″

Adds brother Loren Venegas, Rivera’s boss: ``It definitely takes managing and coaching, which we all get in some way.″

But it pays off: ``We do customer surveys and they come back, `Great working with Antonio.′ ″

Getting to work by 8 a.m. each workday hasn’t been a struggle for the guy who in prison had to be up by 6:30 a.m. And Rivera’s worked hard, winning a promotion from production to sales and not disappointing, once using his Spanish at a Chicago trade show to win a contract from a Hispanic who didn’t speak English.

At home, his bride-to-be, Nancy Castro, says Rivera is making up lost time with her and their son. ``That’s all he looks forward to _ to seeing his son every day,″ she says.

Rivera says it’s been a challenge. ``But with everybody helping me and my striving forward, I’m doing OK.

``Everything’s falling into place.″