Roland Whitley had spent 9 years in prison, and it wasn’t until he joined Public Allies that he could begin to express his full potential and leadership in Connecticut
Every year about 650,000 people are released from state and federal prisons. Two-thirds of them are rearrested within three years of release, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
When Roland Whitley walked out of prison for the third time recently, having done a total of 9 years on drug charges, he was sure he didn’t want to go back for a fourth time. But it wasn’t easy.
“I came home (to Bridgeport, Connecticut) and started my own business doing odd jobs, but I was still in the streets trying to get my life together,” Roland explains. “One day I told a friend, Steve Nelson, who is a police officer, ‘I need help.’ So Steve and Kingsley Osei, who founded Connecticut Against Violence (CAV), invited me to speak to a group of students.”
Roland accepted the invitation and, through CAV, he met Charlie Grady, the Bridgeport Project Manager for Project Longevity, a violence reduction partnership of law enforcement, social service providers, and residents. When Charlie heard Roland’s story, he urged him to apply to Public Allies. Though the application and interview process made him nervous, Roland says he felt it was an opportunity that could lead to a fresh start.
“I loved that they didn’t look at me as an ex-felon, as someone who sold drugs,” Roland says. “They looked at me as Roland Whitley. I love that about Public Allies, they are the only one who truly gave me a second chance.”
Roland was accepted as an AmeriCorps Ally, and started serving at Stamford Academy, a high school that provides a supportive educational environment for students who have struggled in traditional school environments or have dropped out of school.
“When I first started working, I wasn’t used to computers, or to even really working,” Roland says. “Meetings, debriefs, deadlines – all these demands – I wasn’t used to it. The streets were my comfort zone.”
But with the support of his fellow Allies, things got easier.
“I’m blessed – I’m telling you, Public Allies brought a lot out in me and showed me that it’s in me, that there is positive in me,” Roland says. “Two, three years ago I could never have told you I’d be here, working in a high school, teaching students, being so positive.”
Every Wednesday, Roland teaches a popular life-skills class, but he has a unique approach. “Instead of having them just listen to me, I have the students interact with each other and I bring guest speakers,” Roland says. “The speakers let them know, ‘You’re not the only one going through struggles.’”
“I try to teach students that they are leaders,” he continues. “We have a different student lead the class each week. They can lead. They can do more than just sit in the class and listen.”
Roland sees people in his neighborhood approach him much differently than before. “Before they’d say, ‘Roland, let’s go have a drink,’” he says. “Now they’re saying, ‘I know a friend who is going through some things, can I get your number?’ They’re looking to me for advice.”
The second chance Roland found at Public Allies didn’t just lead to a job he loves — his AmeriCorps placement at Stamford Academy has since hired Roland full time — but to a better home life.
“I’m still working on it,” Roland says. “But overall Public Allies helped me become a better father; to have a better relationship with Requelinda (his long-time partner Requelinda Cabral); and to be a better uncle.”
Roland has three children, daughters Kei’jai, 20, and Tatiyana, 18, both college students; and son Noah, 1 year old. “Public Allies allowed me to put my family in a better position, not just for today but for tomorrow as well,” he says. “Since I joined Public Allies and changed my life, Requelinda and I have been blessed with another child. Now I have a one-year-old boy. She and I have been together 20 years – she stuck with me. She’s my biggest cheerleader.”
Roland, who completed Public Allies Connecticut in the summer, muses on what might have been if he’d missed this opportunity. “If it weren’t for Public Allies, I’d be somewhere totally different,” he says. “And it wouldn’t be good.”