All Johnny ever wanted to do was ease his mother’s suffering. As a child growing up fatherless in Washington Heights, Johnny watched helplessly as his mom struggled to put food on the table for her three children, to keep a roof over their heads and clothes on their backs. But no matter how hard she worked, there was never enough money.
For a 12-year-old living in poverty, desperately wanting to help his family survive, the lure of the streets—the lure of easy money—can be hard to resist, no matter the risks. “I hung out with an older crew and we did all kinds of things to make money,” says Johnny. “We robbed people. Broke into apartments. Sold drugs. Sure enough, I started to bring money home. It made me feel like a man.”
But he wasn’t a man. He was a 12-year-old boy who was in over his head. By the time he realized that his life was spiraling out of control, it was too late. The crimes and violence had escalated so much that he was getting arrested three to four times a week. By the age of 25 Johnny had spent half his life behind bars—in and out of prison again and again.
“That’s the problem with the streets,” he says. “They trick you. You think you’re working them and getting this big pay out. But the whole time, the streets are working you. Taking from you.”
The streets took his little brother too. “I wanted to be a role model for him,” Johnny says. “The problem is that’s exactly what I was. And just like I wanted, he followed in my footsteps…out onto the street.”
It was the first of two devastating blows that would alter Johnny’s life forever. The second was the death of his best friend, who’d overdosed. “You hear it all the time: the streets lead to prison or death,” he says. “I lived it. It happened right before my eyes. And it was going to happen to me. I needed a way out.” He found it sitting in a smelly, dirty room at a shelter. That’s where he heard about The Doe Fund.
Johnny’s family had been evicted from their apartment. He was alone, with nowhere to go. But everything changed when he joined Ready, Willing & Able. “For the first time since I was 12, I wasn’t a criminal,” he says. He was a young man with a future…a real future. “I was someone who deserved a chance in life.”
Johnny worked hard, maintained his sobriety, and earned his high school diploma and his OSHA certification. Along the way, he learned the most important thing of all: his value. “I now know that I can support the people I love as a man, with a good job and a future. I never have to spend another minute in jail to be that man.”