Frayser’s Lifeline to Success gives a figurative lifeline to men and women re-entering life after a period of incarceration, many of whom want to find new life after previous ones filled with violent crimes.
Driving up to the Lifeline to Success offices on Dellwood Avenue in Frayser there isn’t anything that sets the building apart from others in the community. The building’s exterior in some ways resembles a home.
That’s fitting, because the figurative lifeline offered here for former incarcerated men and women is a home of sorts for the start of a new life. Lifeline to Success stands out for the individuals the program helps, much like the bright T-shirts they wear with the words “Blight Patrol” in bold letters on the back.
Yes, blight patrol is an important function for Lifeline to Success. Participants are employed in work that ranges from cutting grass to cleaning city-owned properties. The organization contracts with the city to clean blight, the Achievement School District to maintain properties and Clean Pathways to clean over 100 schools every two weeks. But that work is just part of the program.
Every morning, participants attend classroom training. Manuals are involved, but this is more an opportunity to discuss the everyday situations participants encounter in life, maybe an argument with a co-worker the previous afternoon or ways to work through perceived slights from others.
On a recent morning, class was already in session as DeAndre Brown rejoined. As executive director and founder of Lifeline to Success, he has several participants he trusts to serve as classroom leaders. A young participant is in a heated discussion with one of the leaders about respect.
After observing the interaction for a moment, Brown steps to the front.
“Someone like me who talks before I think, how do you deal with that,” the student asked Brown.
“All you can control is how you respond,” Brown replied. “You can walk off and not respond – and that’s not an option at Lifeline – or you can listen.”
Brown later tells the room of 20-plus students he appreciates their tenacity to continue showing up daily.
“Nobody made you show up this morning,” Brown later tells the students. “That’s why I’m thankful you’re here.”
Listening is the key at Lifeline to Success. It’s quickly obvious after observing the classroom for just a minute. Brown has a discussion with a student that is meant to serve as an example.
“We cannot be quiet because we have to be right. We’re losing everywhere else in life, nothing else is going our way, at least I can win this conversation,” Brown said. “By being quiet? No, I’m going to win by talking more. If I’m quiet I lose. So I cannot lose. I’m going to win. I haven’t won anything else but I’m going to win this argument. It’s my life. That’s why people are shooting each other. I will win this argument if my life depends on it. You can’t tell me I’m wrong. Something is wrong with you.”
The heated conversation between Brown and a student continues, but only to prove how powerful listening can be to diffuse a situation. It’s also an example of the path Brown doesn’t want his students to take.
It’s not hard to listen to Brown’s message. He once was in their shoes.
Brown is an ex-felon. Prison wasn’t exactly the end goal for his life. In fact, Brown’s grandparents moved him from Memphis when he was in the third grade to a rural part of eastern Arkansas to live with a great-aunt.
Growing up, he excelled in academics and sports. He had full scholarships to attend Rhodes College and Morehouse College. In his mind he was on his way to be a doctor.
He returned to Memphis and attended Rhodes where he also played football. Brown was a Rhodes student for two years. Then he discovered the life his mother had been on, and the reason his grandparents wanted him out of Memphis as a child.
“It was a culture shock going from the country to Rhodes seeing Mercedes and Lexus (on campus); a friend’s dad bought him a Porsche,” Brown said. “I didn’t have enough money to buy gas. I saw next door where my mom was they were selling crack. I said let me do this. I’m deep in it but since I’m smart I learned how to become a crook.”
From the age of 19 to 27 Brown said his career was being a criminal.
“I’d wake up in the morning trying to figure out how to break the law,” he said. “I got arrested a few times. Nothing major. Then in 2003 I was arrested the last time. I was wanted by the city, the county, the state and even had a federal charge. Everybody wanted some of me.”
He was sentenced to 13.5 years, but ultimately only served 25 months, the last nine of which were in federal prison.
Brown’s life transformation started while still behind bars when he began preaching. He said he learned a lot of people skills being in an environment where the first priority was to be safe followed by learning how to be advantageous.
When he left prison it was with the respect of both inmates and guards. He wanted to live right, and found his way to a re-entry program where he became a trainer. That ultimately led to the birth of Lifeline to Success.
Brown has been out of prison 11 years and Lifeline to Success has existed for six of those years.
In some ways, it’s a wonder Lifeline to Success is successful. Brown purposely mixes members of every gang in the city. The target is violent offenders with multiple offenses, people aged 21 to 60.
“There is every gang in the room and they get along,” he said. “You can’t tell them apart. They want to be different. They find self-worth and value and they don’t want to mess that up.
“We can’t change perceptions in a vacuum. We fight the criminal culture. We have to reprogram our men and women. They take ownership of bad behavior and use it as tools to rebuild our communities. It’s a novel idea. Some people said it wouldn’t work but six years later we’re still growing.”
It took some convincing for Clayborne Taylor. An addict who was in and out of prison for 30 years, Taylor found himself eating out of garbage cans and living in abandoned buildings. He actually had met Brown several years ago in prison.
“I came here and told him I’d be back on Monday,” Taylor said. “Of course I didn’t come back.”
That was last May. But then one Monday morning Taylor said he decided to visit Lifeline to Success. He arrived pretty early, just after 7 a.m. He said Brown typically arrives between 8:30 and 9. But for some reason he also arrived early that day.
Taylor has been involved at Lifeline to Success for the past year. When recounting his story he seems so appreciative for the opportunities for life renewal that have come. But he said his goal in life is to take his experience and be able to give to others.
“It’s a good thing when you can meet a total stranger and your words of encouragement, you don’t know their name but to be able to hug them,” he said. “The only thing they see is a shield of comfort and love coming from you. I cherish that. I’m here. This is a springboard. I’m content right now where I’m at, but this is a springboard for where the Lord will have me go. I’m going to do my best while I’m here.”
Witnessing a classroom experience for just a few minutes, Brown’s passion for the mission is clear. He talks to the students as men and women, with respect. That’s important because he said the main issue the group deals with on a daily basis is disrespect.
“Our team considers instruction given without care is disrespect,” he said. “If I say I need that yard cut it’s more how I say it. If a leader is treating you unfairly, bring it to me and I’ll address it. My main problem since they’re from the street is they hold it in. It’s not physical violence but we come from a place where they curse each other at home. When they come to class and work and use the same language but now it’s with an authority figure it’s disrespect.”
Bobby Bratcher has been attending for two months. He doesn’t reveal why or for how long he was in prison, only that it was “long enough to know I don’t ever want to go back.”
“When I first came my behavior was terrible,” he said. “We do it one step at a time. If you start off learning one word a day and then it goes to two words a day. … I like the program. He got my attention and I keep coming back.”
The program also teaches participants volunteerism. It ranges from donating part of their wages during the summer to fund a junior blight patrol that has about 12 children who have been kicked out of school or are close to getting kicked out to also going into schools to teach conflict resolution.
And when there is a murder in Frayser, the group goes to the scene where they set up a barbecue and bounce houses to show that the criminal activity is not normal behavior.
The program is steadily growing. The first class had eight graduates and 15 participants. The third class had grown to 15 graduates. Today, the average annual graduation is 25.
But graduation isn’t necessary for life redirection. Just the contact helps.
“They come in and see there is a different way to live,” Brown said. “I don’t want them to be comfortable here. This is to get them engaged in the real world.”
Roadblocks exist, mostly the mentality men and women have after a period of incarceration.
“You’ve been controlled for however long you’ve been incarcerated and no debriefing,” Brown said. “I had a guy yesterday and I told him to Google something. He said, ‘What is Google?’ The world didn’t stop because you went to prison. … What people miss is they don’t understand a criminal sees prison as a cost of doing business. If you don’t deal with that they’ll go back. I tell people all the time I don’t care about work. You have to teach them how not to do that and then send them to work.”