Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Ex-Offender Mentorship: Level 3's Working Together

The seed was planted back in 2007, when my former probation officer asked if I could help a Level 3 Sex Offender under his watch. Was he kidding? The fact that he would look to me—after all the trouble I experienced under my own Level 3 designation—felt ironic beyond words.

Then again, it was also quite a testament to the successes I’d achieved since completing probation. And from that perspective, his request made perfect sense. Who better to help someone saddled with a monster’s label than one who had managed to rise above it? Unfortunately, I had so much on my plate at that time that I never followed up on this fascinating opportunity. But it was an idea I never forgot.

So when one of my employees told me about Christopher Gaylord—a likable young man trying to find work under a Level 3 label—I knew immediately that I wanted to meet him.

Chris smiled as I pulled up in my truck, looked directly in my eyes as we were introduced, and reached out to shake my hand. “Thank you for giving me this chance.”

During the drive to my property, where I had a few hours work for him—and more if things went well—Chris told me about himself. As he spoke, I began to see how forthright and sincere he is, remarkably unafraid to discuss his childhood and the mistakes he made.

He told me about being molested repeatedly when he was eleven, how he acted-out as a result, and how this led to him being convicted of two juvenile sex offenses by the time he was fifteen. He also described the ten years he spent growing up in various programs and institutions, including three years fighting a civil commitment sentence from McNeil Island, the Alcatraz of the Pacific Northwest.

Today, at age 22, despite having fulfilled his long sentences, as well as a victim empathy program in which he was made a mentor to others, he was nevertheless branded with an adult sex offender label and classified at the highest risk level. Dropped back into the community with no practical support from the system, a sex offender notification poster with his adult mugshot (and nothing more than his offenses) was published in local newspapers, hung on community bulletin boards, and posted in stores where he buys his food. "I guess I've been lucky so far," he said, meaning he hasn't yet been threatened "too seriously" or physically attacked. But over the last year Chris has been denied countless jobs and housing opportunities, and is now living in a campground because there is nowhere else to go. It is a hauntingly familiar story.

At my property I showed Chris the river running through the forest, the house I built with the help of my community, and various areas of the Zen Garden still in development. “This is exactly what I’d like to build for myself someday,” he said. It was a good sign that he used the term build instead of get, as I emphasized that achieving great things with a monster’s label is not for the faint of heart.

Chris worked hard throughout the afternoon, eager to take on any task I gave him. I was impressed by how well he listened to the details of my instructions, how he asked good questions, and by his ability to find creative solutions similar to my own thought process.

I also learned that Chris completed a high school education with honors during his incarceration, that he plays guitar, writes songs and sings, has a steady girlfriend, and enjoys very good relations with his family. But what impresses me most about Chris is his amazing attitude. Far from being depressed or bitter about the pervasive discrimination he faces, he manages to maintain a positive outlook on his past, present and future. One of my favorite quotes speaks to this:

Attitude to me is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than success, than what other people think or say or do….The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past...we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the string we have, and that is our attitude.

I wondered whether Chris’s remarkable attitude—or any of his admirable qualities—was considered when the Sheriff’s Department did his risk assessment. If my own Sheriff’s assessment is any indication, the answer is no. And I find this very sad.

At the end of the day, I told Chris I wanted to employ him on a regular basis. By doing this, I could offer him an informal education in gardening and landscaping techniques, skills that he could apply to creating his own business soon if he so chooses. I could also share more of what I’ve learned about self-advocacy, the lessons of my substance abuse recovery, and the ways in which I manifested my own dreams against the odds. In return, I would get the pleasure of Chris’s enthusiastic assistance with my ambitious garden plans—hard and dirty work that scares many workers away. I would also enjoy the deeper satisfaction of helping a person that too many in our judgmental and fearful society would rather see thrown away.

Some people might wonder: “Won't it look bad on you if he offends again?” To them I would say that nobody is without risk, and I would rather have helped out of compassion than to have turned away out of fear. It’s incomprehensible to me that our courts are regularly trying children as adults, and branding adults for offenses they committed as children. The sex offender registry was supposedly established to protect children but now, tragically, so many children are its victims.

I believe in chances. Not only second chances, but third and fourth and as many as it takes. If human beings are not worth fighting for, then what is? I will never forget how meaningful real friendship and support was when I was in Chris’s position, and it feels so good and right to give it back.

Note: As this story went to post I learned that Chris was told by a Parks official that he cannot continue living in any Jefferson County campgrounds.

I look forward to the day when the mindset that developed these wonderful programs described in Yes Magazine is applied to ex-sex offenders...for the benefit of everyone.