Through the past weeks here on the Turning Leaf page, we’ve talked to a number of our current students. We’ve learned what causes young men to take the path toward crime, and we’ve talked about the many tragedies encountered in the lifestyle.

But what does life look like for a Turning Leaf graduate? How does it feel when you realize the straight and narrow path is still full of dangerous temptations and daily decisions that can change your life? How to do the skills learned over 10 weeks at Turning Leaf prepare you to value hard work over easy money, and to stand down from confrontations in order to move forward?

This is Elton’s story.

Elton grew up in a regular house, with a regular mom and dad, and regular things like video games. His parents took care of Elton and his brother and sister. Things were good.

But when he was a teenager, the crime lifestyle was too good to resist. It was too easy. “I got caught up in the lifestyle…the glamour of the lifestyle,” he says. Drugs, guns, robberies. By 15 years old he was spending two years in juvie for a neighborhood robbery, and by the time he came out, he says, “it was like I graduated. I had arrived.”

From there, Elton got heavily into it. He did cocaine. Dealt cocaine. Hustled 24 hours a day, seven days a week, making money to support himself and a growing number of children he fathered by different women.

The glory, the recognition, were what kept him there. “They see me,” he says, “and they know: ‘He got money. He smooth with the ladies. He got a nice car.’” He lived for the rush, the thrill of the deal, the adrenaline of it all. “It’s addictive. Once you get a hit of it – the recognition and all that – it’s crazy and it’s for real.”

Life became a revolving door of the streets and jail. He’d do a year in county, another in state, so on and so forth, year after year after year. “The lifestyle was wearing on me,” he says. He was getting older, and started to feel like it had to end sometime. “You go in, doing a year, and you come home with a mindset to get out [of the criminal lifestyle], but as soon as I’m out, somebody’s always waiting for me with a package.” And the cycle would begin again.

By the time Elton hit 34, his kids were getting old enough to tell him what they thought of his life. “They were able to articulate how they felt with me not being there all the time, and it really started sinking in,” he says. So in 2014, when he caught five years federal time on charges for trafficking cocaine and possession of firearms, he knew he was done. “When those cuffs hit my wrist,” he says, “I knew it was time to change. I started on that journey to transform myself.”

It wasn’t easy, though. In prison, he had a reputation to keep, even while trying to walk the straight and narrow path. He’s a big guy, the kind other guys like to test. For as much as he tried to work on his transformation, he says, “you still need that rep in prison to get through smoothly. It was hell, man.”

Luckily, Elton did what he had to do, and he had a solution waiting for him on the outside. Some of our students come upon us by chance; Elton knew he was coming to Turning Leaf before he went up to prison. “I knew I needed resources and accountability to take it to the next level, and to really conquer my demons. The judge recommended Turning Leaf to me, and he put it in my order that when I got out I had to enroll in the program.”

Elton came home to his halfway house on a Monday. He called Blue at Turning Leaf on Wednesday, had an interview on Friday, and started the program the following Monday. One week was all it took to enroll in the program that would help him turn his life around.

In the program, he learned skills he uses to keep himself on the road to success. Stop and Think is a big one. “I use that daily,” he says. “You have to think about what you say or what you do because you never know what’s going to happen or who’s listening.”

Just because he’s out of the lifestyle doesn’t mean the opportunities to rejoin it aren’t still there. Elton can tell stories like this with a laugh now, thanks to stopping and thinking at the time. “A guy texts my phone the other day and says, ‘I got the girl.’ I say, ‘Who is this?’ And he says, ‘The Boss.’ The Boss? The girl he means is cocaine. It was the wrong number.” A few years ago, though, it might not have been a wrong number. But he stopped. He thought.

It also helps him to remember to ask for help. His family supports him now, as does the family at Turning Leaf. When he needs them, they’re there, even after his graduation. At first, he says, “Turning Leaf made my transition smooth. I came in every day. It nurtured what I already had growing in me.”

His experiences there weren’t always easy, though he’s grateful for it all. “Joe’s a good guy,” he says. “He dug in and found some things with me that I really needed to deal with. He really dug around in that basement. It was a blessing. You gotta respect the Leaf.”

Today, Elton considers his life “vanilla.” He works in construction, building bridges, and is working on getting his CDL. He spends a lot of time with his family, particularly his children, and loves it. “I get invitations now to family functions,” he says. “I didn’t used to get that

because I wasn’t really part of the family. It feels good.” He has five kids, aged five through 17. He plays video games with his sons and picks his daughters up from school just to hang out. Working 40 hours a week instead of hustling 24/7 means he has the time to build relationships with them in a way he never could before.

Sometimes the drudgery of a normal job can be frustrating, but he can see the bigger picture. He wants to finish his CDL and maybe start his own business so he can call the shots. He knows it won’t be easy, but he’s ready. “You gotta put in the work,” he says. “In both lifestyles.”

He knows every day he’ll be faced with challenges. “When you get in the job site habits,” he says, “the talking and the jabbing and the jiving, you kind of lose yourself a little. But you have to be cognizant and aware of yourself. You have to stop and think. I’m not about to lose everything I worked for over this guy.”

Elton isn’t concerned about his tough guy image anymore.. When he talks about the past, sometimes, he sounds a little like a preacher. “We’re blinded,” he says. “With shackles over our eyes. When that thing falls off, we see a lot. It’s like I’ve been in a trance, but now I’ve still got time to salvage my life…I mean, I’ve been through it. I’ve been shot, I’ve been robbed. Dealing this stuff now? It’s easy.”

He stops, thinks, and then laughs. “You know what I think? I’m too fly to be a jailbird.”

That about sums it up, doesn’t it? Too fly to be a jailbird. You talked about starting out in the basement, Elton, and we can’t wait to see how high you go. There’s no ceiling; there’s only wide open sky.

Story Captured by Leah Rhyne