Showing them the other side of the tracks

Published: Saturday, Nov. 30 2013 10:23 p.m. MST

One of Gary’s first test cases was a boy we’ll call Edgar. Seventeen years old. Just out of juvy after two years inside. Born in Compton, Calif. Dad a gang banger who was never home. Mom, struggling to make ends meet, had Edgar selling Costco chips on the corner when he was 5. When he was 7, she loaded him and his younger sister and older brother in a van and fled California for Utah, where they lived in a camper shell, unheated, in West Valley City. Edgar grew up believing prison was where you went to get a warm night’s sleep — and credibility. Part of the conditions of his release from the Wasatch Youth Center was that he would pay $18,000 in restitution for his crimes — or he would sure enough get that prison cred.

For two hours every Sunday and one hour on Wednesday nights, Gary sketched out another life for Edgar, one completely foreign to his frame of reference, one that included a steady job, balancing a checkbook, getting a good night’s sleep, going to school, actually doing what the court asked and paying back that $18K. For Edgar, it was like someone describing the other side of the moon.

Once he was released, Gary found Edgar a job at his firm, in the warehouse. He picked him up early in the morning and made sure he got to work. He taught him about being punctual, about doing a good job, about handling money, about paying back.

Not long into this new arrangement, Edgar learned of a woman in his West Valley neighborhood who had a newspaper route that brought in enough money for her to pay her rent and take care of her kids. Then the woman got sick and couldn’t deliver her papers. He asked Gary: Could he deliver her papers for free so she would still get paid? Not only would it be possible, said Gary, but Edgar would earn service hours that would go toward that restitution he owed.

“As much of a high as you get from a gang,” Gary told him, “you can get that and more from service.”

Edgar paid off the $18K within a year.

It wasn’t all smooth. Edgar slipped up here and there. Each time, Gary waited him out. Edgar never went to prison. Now, more than five years later and a full-fledged adult, Edgar has this to say:

“It’s the best thing that’s ever happened in my life. I’m not in prison, I’m not dead, I got a job, I got a better job. He (Gary) believed in me when I didn’t even believe in myself. I was just a gang-banging kid, that’s all I was. It’s a blessing I met that dude.”

Wait. Edgar is just warming up.

“What have I learned? I’ve learned if I work hard I can have what I want in life. I never worked hard, I was, like I said, a gang-banging kid. Life was all about violence, drugs, that’s all I cared about. I got introduced to a way, way different life. I want to be successful. I want to have a family. I want to be able to say I worked for 40-50 years to get what I got and it felt good to get there. I’m working two jobs, I’m a father to my kid, I go to college, at SLCC, in composite technology. I want a career job at Boeing. I’m going to be something in that company.”

* * *

Gary realized he couldn’t hire every at-risk kid to work at his firm.

And he could hardly see how he could ask other employers to take such an obvious risk on someone just out of jail.

Which is what brought about his brainstorm to start his nonprofit foundation called Forever Changed.

Gary funded it with his own money and approaches employers with an offer few can refuse: Forever Changed will pay the wages, plus Social Security and medical, for the at-risk kids.

Hey, could you use a free employee?

The wages are guaranteed for three to six months and maybe longer. If the young men turn into valuable employees the companies want to keep, that’s great too.

Gary doesn’t tell the kids he’s paying their salary, and neither do their employers. And he insists that the employers put each prospective hire through an interview process just like anyone else and turn them away if they’re not impressed, just like they would with anyone else.

Gary said, “I’ll have kids call and say: ‘I got the job! I did what you said, looked them in the eye, told them I’d be on time, and I got it!'

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