I work with homeless and runaway teenagers. I am still puzzled how I ended up in this field. I was a business major in college, but after two years of making money on Madison Avenue I left it in order to devote myself to helping kids get off of the streets, away from drugs, crime and gangs. Twenty-six years later, I am still at it. All I can say is that God led me here.
When you are working with street kids, I believe one of the most important things is that you stick with them, no matter what. One of the first kids I met, back in 1981, was Tony. African-American, from a single parent family in Harlem, he had spent most of his childhood in foster homes and group homes, finally aging out of that system at 18 and hitting the streets. We had zero in common but for some reason that didn’t matter. We found a bond. He only lasted in the shelter I was working at for two months. He was kicked out for coming in high on angel dust one night and tearing up the place. I’d see him out in Times Square every once in a while for the next few months, handing out flyers for some porn theatre, trying to convince passers-by to come in. Then he disappeared.
Four years later I was chatting with a prison chaplain I knew, and Tony’s name came up. The priest had seen him recently in the main New York City jail, Riker’s Island. He told me no one ever visited Tony.
So I went to see him. Tony was stunned to see me. He gave me a big hug and we talked for an hour. He was in there for selling drugs, and he expected to soon be shipped upstate where he’d spend the next few years. I gave him my address and told him to write, promising that I’d do the same.
He was sent upstate, he did write and we corresponded regularly. Eventually he was released, but re-arrested on another drug charge. This cycle continued for a good dozen years. I never stopped writing, nor did he.
By 1998 he stopped getting arrested and one day called me to invite me to come to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in the city. “It’s my one year anniversary of being clean,” he told me. I went. It was an incredible moment. When it was his turn to speak, he pointed to me and told the crowd, “See that white guy over there? (I was the only Caucasian.) I wouldn’t be alive today if not for him.”
We live in different parts of the country now, but to this day I talk to Tony by phone at least once a month. I am the godfather to his little girl, who is now age 8. He works, lives in an apartment and in a few months celebrates ten years of sobriety.
I’m glad I hung in there with him.
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