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Through the Fire

photo-ndume-w-drum
Ndume Olatushani
By: Kingsley East

“No matter where we’re at, we can still help someone less fortunate than ourselves.” Many people claim this statement, but few have twenty-eight years of imprisonment to stand behind it. Ndume Olatushani spent over half of his life in prison for a murder that he didn’t commit, yet he never saw himself as worse off than the people around him. Not only that, but Ndume spent his jail time putting this statement into action, as he reached out to help his fellow inmates and educate himself about the legal system.

A harsh environment and a series of bad choices growing up led Ndume into the wrong circumstances, which incarcerated him for a murder-robbery that occurred in Tennessee. Before his trial date, Ndume had never even stepped foot in Tennessee. While the legal system failed Ndume in many ways, it did not defeat him. Ndume believes, Whatever fires we go through in life, if we get through to the other side, that adversity is not meant for us, it is meant for other people.”

Ndume used his time in jail to serve others and show people that we all have a responsibility to help those around us. Now, Ndume uses his experiences to reach out to men in jail and youths who are subject to follow his path into prison. He does this by volunteering at after school programs for local high schools and partnering with organizations like Project Return and the Martha O’Bryan Center.

Looking back, Ndume sees that his home life was a foundational place for his life of service, but his social environment failed to encourage him to rise above stereotypes and keep away from the pathway to jail. Now, Ndume strives to give children and incarcerated men hope. His story is proof that anything is possible, and any situation can be turned into an opportunity to care for others.

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Leroy Jones Speaks of Hope & “No More Victims”

 By Karen E. Williams

Leroy Jones

Leroy Jones
Photo by Gary Voland

While growing up Leroy Jones didn’t have any role models for volunteering.  But these days he finds priceless rewards in volunteering and sharing his story of Hope. He shares it with men in prison – encouraging them to use their time to get an education.  He shares it with groups of youth who are easy prey to gangs in their environment – letting them know they don’t have to succumb to the negativity and violence of the gang.  He shares it with educators, activists, ministers and politicians – speaking on the realities of prison, zero tolerance, the educational system and gang life, and encouraging them to continue planting seeds of hope. He believes with the seeds of hope planted someone else may come along with the water and sunlight and that one day hope may germinate and grow for those who are lost, as it did for him.

Leroy’s mom was a single parent who worked two jobs, had little education and low income.  He caught the Metro Bus to school five blocks from his house, walking through a rough, crime-ridden neighborhood to and from the bus stop.  And, perhaps not surprisingly, he ended up in the Tennessee State Penitentiary for 17 years.

The fortunate thing for Leroy was that he didn’t let those years in prison go to waste.  Instead, he spent his time getting an education.  “I would stand in the chow line for 45 minutes a day practicing vocabulary words and learning many of the things I should have learned in school,” he said.  He also learned that we can each take responsibility for our lives and not let ourselves give in to the ideas that we are no good unless we show someone we have power through violence – a message that is so prevalent in prison and in neighborhoods like the one he grew up in.

Leroy is now dedicated to making a positive difference in the community.  His intention is simple, he says.  “No more victims.  That means no more kids being sent to prison as well as no more citizens being victimized by unruly and criminal-minded adolescents.”

He has spread his No More Victims message in talks to a wide variety of workshops and organizations including the American Baptist College’s  “Dismantling the Cradle to Prison” Workshop; Vanderbilt University’s “Rethinking Prison” Workshop; F.L.I.P/Fifty Forward’s annual volunteer commemoration luncheon; the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services workshop on youth violence; and the Children’s Defense Fund on “Defining Trauma as a Public Health Concern,” “Putting an End to Zero Tolerance,” and “Love’s Healthy Start.”

“I volunteer because I know how desperate the need is to be connected to someone when you are a lost teenager, trapped in your own confusion, ignorance and misguided actions.  I volunteer so that those kids who are in the ‘thick of it’ will know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” Leroy says.  “It is so uplifting and fulfilling when I see that they really understand my attempt to give a realistic view of prisons and gangs.  Scaring me didn’t change my behavior.  But treating me like a person with an intelligent mind and helping me to understand the realities of life in prison and in gangs did help me to change.”

Today Leroy is working as an electrician.  He says volunteering has taught him that “Just as the darkest clouds create the most brilliant lightening, the darkest children with the most troubled pasts can become the best and the brightest among us.”

Doing Good is pleased to recognize Leroy Jones, a resident of Davidson County, as Nashville’s Volunteer of the Month for September.

Who has delivered a message of hope that changed your life?  What are you doing to spread the message of hope to someone who is “lost”?   Please join the conversation.

 

Nominate a Nashville area volunteer for Doing Good’s Volunteer of the Month to recognize the good work they do in the community at www/DoingGood.tv.