LIVING DRUG-FREE, feeling part of the working world and the progress of your city, making $10 an hour for a new company owned by people who believe in second chances, knowing your relatives are glad to see you and that your neighbors might even respect you - all that beats hustling heroin for $50 a day. Any way you measure it, the lives of Thomas Willis, Ricky Smith, Sean Wright, Craig Wright, William Taylor and Melvin Richardson are better at the start of September than they were at the start of August - and so, by a small increment, is the quality of life in Baltimore.
One man, one step at a time - that's how we get out of this heroin-and-homicide mess.
These six men are not dealing dope today, nor are they sitting idly in a rowhouse thinking about returning to that life. They are not hanging out with old homies and hopheads, aimless and lost, frustrated and depressed. They are not taking up space in prison cells - at $24,000 a year in
What we found yesterday morning, on a large triangle of land on Key Highway, were six men in yellow hard hats, working up a sweat for an excavating company.
Four of the men had called The Sun this summer for help in finding work after years of selling drugs or being addicted to them. The other two, William Taylor and Craig Wright, were already enrolled in STRIVE Baltimore, the program that helps ex-offenders re-enter the working world, when The Sun learned of the job opportunities and passed the information along to STRIVE staff.
All of these men said they had sold drugs at one time or another in Baltimore. All but one, Sean Wright, said he had been addicted. Each man had spent time in prison, and all found their criminal records a huge obstacle in the 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 Linda Chriest. Its current project is the demolition of an old gasoline station and the excavation of a large tract on Key Highway in
. A huge amount of soil will be removed to prepare the site. A carwash, gas station and convenience store will be built on it.
The Key Highway job is one of several TLC has lined up in its first year of operation.
"I had come out of a bad marriage, and I needed to start over," says Chriest. "I was with my daughter. I was renovating a little house. I was going to open a restaurant."
But it was Tim Walker, an experienced heavy-equipment operator (and now her fiance), who convinced Chriest she could establish a company to perform site work. 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 some of the ex-offenders, former drug dealers and recovering addicts profiled in this space since June. The Sun sent them candidates and, in Melvin Richardson'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, who added that she'd like to line up more projects in Baltimore because most of her 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 - as he toiled in the dirt.
When we first spoke in July, Willis said he was determined not to return to prison 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 and two sisters "go help Tommy." They did as asked, and now Willis lives in his mother's house in Northeast Baltimore. He went through the STRIVE Baltimore program, 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," Willis says.
He wanted anything but his old life in the heroin hustle -- $50 a day, plus regular arrests and hitches in prison.
When we spoke in June, Sean Wright, 36, was desperate for work and dejected about not being able to support his family. Released from prison in 2003 after serving time on drug convictions, he found a decent job in a supermarket warehouse in Jessup. But he lost it in May after being arrested on an outstanding warrant for an old motor vehicle violation - something from his past breaking his flow into the future. Wright was glad to have the yellow hard hat yesterday.
Same with Ricky Smith, 40, who had experienced many years of heroin addiction, recovery and relapse, prison and work-release, before finally getting on a good track in May.
William Taylor sees the TLC job as "the stepping stone" back to the work he really loves - as a cook in a restaurant or hotel kitchen.