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Everybody's Out Here Dying

Posted on Nov 04, 2017 at 0:00 AM

‘Everybody’s out here dying’: Teen in recovery program talks about drug-related crime


OCTOBER 26, 2017 5:02 PM

Normally, when writing stories about drugs and violence in the community, I talk to adults about the problem.

This time, I wanted to include young people in the conversation, especially some who are significantly impacted.

That led me to the Project Change clubhouse at New Horizons. It’s a treatment program for children ages 13-17 who have substance abuse problems.

At the clubhouse, I met three young men who were painting pumpkins for an upcoming fall festival contest. I informed them about the Red Ribbon series the Ledger-Enquirer has been running this week and asked for their views on drugs and crime in the community.

At first, the boys were quiet. It seemed that no one would speak.

And then one of the teen’s broke the silence.

“Columbus is the new Chicago,” said the young man, whose name was withheld to protect his privacy. “Everybody’s just out here dying.”

All the adults in the room, including those running the program, were stunned.

I asked the teenager to explain what he meant.

“These folks don’t care now-a-days,” he said. “They don’t care about other people, how they think. They don’t care about their family. They just do what they do. They’re young; they don’t know no better.

“... We’re going to do what we want to,” he continued. “... When you get locked up and get out, you’ve got street cred.”

But that doesn’t mean they’re as tough as they appear, he said, especially when they’re incarcerated.

“Many people cry, many people think about their life,” he said, “because they don’t know what’s fittin’ to happen; court the next day and the judge might give them five years. We young people. Those five years gonna make a big difference in your life, especially being away from your family.”

I asked the young man if that has been his experience, and he said “multiple times.”

“Being high, doing something stupid,” he said of his past indiscretions. “Committing crime, breaking in somebody’s house; didn’t think I was going to get caught.”

He said he started getting into trouble at 9, 10 years old. His family had just moved into a new neighborhood. He started hanging out with the wrong crowd and smoking.

“It wasn’t breaking into houses then,” he said. “We were stealing out of stores, and then we got comfortable. We didn’t get caught the first time and so we kept on doing it.”

He said that in his neighborhood most of the children begin smoking weed, drinking, popping pills and stealing at about 10 years old. He’s done it all, he said. The adults sell drugs and the children get high.

“That’s how it is now-a-days,” he said. “We don’t want it to be like that, it just is. That’s how we came up.”

The young man said he’s now at the New Horizons clubhouse trying to improve his life.

“It’s hard to stay on the right track, but it’s hard now-a-days because of the environment I’m in,” he said. “... Where I stay, you got shootouts every day, people breaking into houses, people’s cars getting stolen, robbery, all that. I seen it with my own eyes. It changed me.”

I asked him about his aspirations for the future.

“My plan is after I graduate high school, go into the military, the Navy, for about four years,” he said. “And then after I get out of the Navy, I’m going to law school to become a lawyer.”

Why did he want to become a lawyer?

“So I could get my people out of trouble,” he said. “There’s a lot of people doing jail time for things they didn’t even do, and they don’t have lawyers to defend them.”

If he was the mayor of Columbus and he wanted to fix such problems, what would he do?

“I don’t think it’s going to be fixed in this city, because the city doesn’t want to be fixed,” he said.

Why does he think that?

“People know killing somebody is wrong,” he said. “People know they’re going to eventually get caught for it. They don’t care.”

“But you sound like you care,” I interjected.

“Yeah, I care, but at the same time, I don’t,” he said. “... After all the bad things I done did. Karma. What goes around comes around. ... But I care enough to try to make it out of Columbus, start a family, become a lawyer.”

Listening to the young man speak, I couldn’t help but feel that we have all failed him somehow, even those of us who are strangers.

How does a young man grow up in a community and feel so hopeless? How does someone who aspires to be a lawyer get so trapped in a cycle of criminal activity at such a young age?

Denise Wade, day-services coordinator at Project Change, described the program as a recovery support clubhouse that offers substance abuse, psycho-education, anger management groups and other programs for youths struggling with substance abuse.

“We also provide fun, sober, safe, recreational activities for the youth,” she said. The program includes Saturday outings. The group already has gone to the movies, Rigby’s Entertainment Complex in Macon, and Dave & Buster’s in Atlanta. They’re scheduled to go fishing this weekend.

Wade said there are about 16 to 18 youths enrolled in the program. The clubhouse accepts referrals from Muscogee County Juvenile Drug Court and the Department Juvenile Justice, as well as schools, parents, grandparents and other caretakers. They are at-risk youths who just need support as they try to overcome their challenges.

“We have a fine group of young people here that are really trying hard and making an effort to change their lives and do the next right thing,” she said during my visit. “Being drug-free will give them every possible opportunity to do something different with their lives.

“... If it was easy, everybody would do it,” she said. “They’re very courageous young men.”

Alva James-Johnson: 706-571-8521, @amjreporter


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