Sunday, September 22, 2013

Frank Denton: Redemption for the worst among us

Redemption for the worst among us.
Originally Published in the Florida Times Union
September, 22 2013

Written by Frank Denton

You and I love stories about redemption — people overcoming, surviving and conquering.

This column was going to be about the redemption of a convicted felon named Shawn, but then I found out what he did to earn 12 years in prison, and I — and probably you — can’t handle that yet. I need a more open mind and a bigger heart.

Let’s see if we can find that. Maybe through another powerful story of redemption, that of Florence Haridan, who ultimately became one of Shawn’s angels of redemption.
Eleven years ago, Haridan was a senior executive at Citibank in Jacksonville, leading teams of hundreds of people in the credit card division.

But her life was a disaster. The daughter of an abusive alcoholic father, she was married to an abusive husband. And she weighed more than 400 pounds. “I’d been fat my whole life. Food was my drug of choice.”

About 11 years ago, at the age of 40, she had a “personal awakening,” when her weight was keeping her from enjoying the beach, one of her few pleasures. It just wore her out to walk on the sand and bend over to pick up seashells. So, she said, “I went on a personal journey. I gave myself a chance.”

She had gastric-bypass surgery, committed to a 12-step program, lost 220 pounds and kept it off. After a particularly violent night — “my birthday” — she divorced her husband and left him with “half of my net worth.”

But trouble wasn’t through with her. She had left Citibank to find more creative work, but instead, she developed pernicious anemia, a very serious disease that enfeebled her for 2½ years and left her impoverished and miserable.

In 2008, Haridan decided to kill herself. She wrote the note, took some pills and planned to jump off a bridge in St. Augustine. A friend called the police, and the cop who checked on her, noting the religious art around her apartment, asked if she believed in God.
“Where is he now?” she remembers responding. “I’m broke, I’m almost dead.”
The officer said: “He sent me.”

Haridan spent nine days in the Flagler Hospital “psych ward” under the Baker Act, then went through psychotherapy. She said the doctors figured out her misery traced back to the pernicious anemia.

Haridan remembers the moment in the hospital that jolted her to end her free fall and begin the ascent. “Some friends had come to see me, and I felt so bad when they left because I couldn’t leave. I saw people in there being given up on. They had no one.”
They were almost disposable people, being tossed out as useless, and that became a metaphor for her and what came next.

“I just got busy getting better. The psych ward had a creative room, so I started getting creative again.” She had a BFA in graphic design and had worked in that field early in her career. One of her favorite, and oft-used, words is “creative.”

And she got a job as the local executive director of Character Counts, the national program that works to infuse schools, governments and agencies with its “six pillars of character” — trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.

“We work to bring character to life in unique and innovative ways by creating experiences that engage the participants to have their voices heard,” the organizations says. “We endeavor to create a sense of accountability and empowerment for all our members.”
Something in those words resonated with Haridan — her education, experience and personal redemption. “All that life experience prepared me for this.”

She decided to create an entrepreneurial enterprise for Character Counts that would recycle or revive disposable things — food, material and people.

So far, she has created Conscious Eats, which takes donated food and uses it for catering or different products — Einstein Bagels, for example, donated day-old bagels that Conscious Eats is turning into trail mix and bagel chips for Intuition Ale Works.
Still to come are Conscious Threads, to repurpose clothing, and Conscious Story, to tell inspirational stories of re-created lives like Haridan’s.

But after the entrepreneurial creativity and business plans are the heart of the Conscious projects — reclaimed people to work for the enterprises.

Remembering those lost souls in the psych ward and, for a time, herself, Haridan targeted the most disposable people, those no one wants — ex-cons. She takes them fresh out of prison, sees they get character coaching and counseling with mentors, helps them develop a “business plan” for their lives, insists they follow the parole rules, gives them some work to do and some self-respect, and shows them there is a way up.

Her star is Shawn, a former Blue Cross manager who came to her 2½ years ago after serving 12 years in prison — for sexual assault of a child. Haridan said he himself was abused as a child, and he turned himself in, and so on, but still … sexual assault of a child.
Haridan said Shawn has worked hard and straight since he went to prison. He taught GED classes inside and learned Spanish. Since he’s been out, she said, he’s obeyed all the parole and sex-offender registration rules, and he’s about to receive his bachelor’s degree at FSCJ. He’s chair of the finance committee of his church, and he and his fiancée are planning their wedding.

Hardly anyone else wants him. He has to live in a “hellhole, with a slum landlord,” Haridan said, and keep a log of everywhere he goes and avoid certain social situations. (Shawn is so nervous about this column that he finally asked that his last name not be used. Out of hope for his redemption, I agreed.)

While Shawn worked at menial labor, Haridan started hiring him part time to help establish Conscious Eats, and through hard work and creativity, he now is full-time director of operations.

In talking about Shawn and her other ex-offenders, Haridan fairly exudes energy, enthusiasm and optimism. Her eyes brighten and her words accelerate as she describes the emotional, psychological and functional transformations she sees in her recycled people.
“While they’re in prison,” she said, “they’re just sitting, and their neuro pathways for problem-solving are set aside. Someone tells them when to eat, when to drink, when to sleep. They can’t use their creative side where they have to improvise, make something out of nothing.”

So after they’re released, receive some counseling and supervision, they need work, which is hard enough for an ex-con. Haridan said they also need a chance to succeed at something and earn self-respect. A lucky few get a chance to do that with Character Counts and the Conscious project.

“These are amazing men who can be wildly creative, but before, they used it in crime.” Haridan said that, with some opportunity and their own commitment, they can recycle that creativity into a new life.

“I am very ambitious and very determined,” Shawn said, “and as my personal coach, she has managed to pull me out of my shell and take my strengths, skills and abilities and start to hone them. Working with her has pushed me back to where I focused, taking more initiative, more problem-solving as related to business opportunities.

“Rather than being something of an outcast, she has helped me meet people and have some purpose in my life again, rather than just a run-of-the-mill job to pay the bills.”
Shawn, now 39, said he understands why people are revolted at his crime. “Nothing I can say will excuse it or justify it or make it go away. I don’t try to minimize what I did, but I also have learned how I got to that point and why I did what I did.

“While I was in [prison], it took me several years of really finding what was meaningful in life to me, to where I really gave my life to Christ. He has changed me immensely, while I was inside and now on the outside. A catalyst to me becoming a different person.

“I want to live uprightly and do what’s right and be a contributing member of society. People can change. People who get to know me see my person, see how I live my life, they’re very comfortable and at ease with me. They see what I’m focused on and what my life is about. I know that redemption is possible, that redemption is real.
“Nothing is throwaway. Everyone has potential.”

So will Shawn make it? “Absolutely,” said Haridan. “He’s going to run this company, or another one. He’s an entrepreneur, way smarter than humping boxes in a warehouse. He has a dream. He wants a family again. He’s going to be fabulously successful.”
She said she will be, too. “I’ll employ hundreds of guys, and I’ll have tons of jobs created — and people living in character.”

Go back to the bagel analogy. “Those bagels are half a day old,” Haridan said, “so they’re disposable, just like these guys. But with a little bit of ingenuity, a little bit of creativity, you can make something that’s garbage into something that’s unexpected and beautiful.
“I helped Shawn get his faith in himself back. I help people love themselves again.”
Most of us can’t see the potential in people like Shawn. Thank goodness someone does.

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