Nazerine Griffin started sweeping the streets the week of the blizzard of 1995. His route passed right in front of the brownstone on East 84th Street where The Doe Fund has its offices and the McDonalds live. The temperature was below freezing and Naz was working furiously to keep his body warm and his mind focused.
"And this lady comes up to me and says, 'Hi! How ya' doing? Are you cold?'" Naz's eyes soften at the memory. "And she buttons up my collar. Then, she says, 'Don't worry. We're getting insulated jackets and you're going to be warm real soon.' And she walks away."
"I thought she was nuts!" Naz laughs. "Here I am, starting my life all over again at 39 years old; still broken up, half a shell of a human being; and she's so cheery and caring. You have to understand how it feels when you fall all the way to the bottom and someone reaches out and says, 'You know what? I care.' That lady lifted my heart so."
It wasn't until the next day, when she came by again and introduced herself, that Naz realized that lady was Harriet McDonald.
Naz's heart and life have been on the rise ever since he left the last program he was in and came to RWA in Brooklyn as a client. It has been four years since the blizzard and that "broken up, half a shell of a human being" has gone on to become the director of the facility he was then just entering.
Talk to anyone connected with The Doe Fund and Nazerine's name inevitably comes up. He has been a role model and mentor to many of those coming through RWA behind him and a major contributor to the success of the program. "I am this program," he declares. "I'm a straight-up product all the way."
That's no small statement when you consider this is a guy who says he spent most of his early life as a "thug" and the rest of it as a "parasite." During his cocaine and heroin years, Naz was an armed robber. (He only stopped sticking up banks because he saw a picture of himself in a ski mask on the second page of the Daily News.) Crack dragged him all the way down into the gutter where he "fed off weak people, women, people who didn't have anything, just to get that next hit."
Even then, though, the seeds that George believes exist in even the most downtrodden and seemingly depraved human beings, were still alive in Naz. "I used to think it was corny to go to work from 9 to 5," he says. "I ridiculed my father because I thought he lived such a boring life. That's what I was running away from. By the end of my run, all I wanted was to go to work. I can remember hiding under cars after selling crack all night long, watching people get up and go to work and thinking,'I wish I could go to work.'"
It was the opportunity to do so that drew Naz to RWA.
He had been languishing in a homeless shelter. "There was no light at the end of that tunnel," he says. "We were a bunch of warehoused human beings with no way out." Naz had come there from a drug treatment program where he had spent 96 nights crying himself to sleep. "They had the typical punching-bag type of approach," he explains. "I was already so torn down and their method was to tear me down some more. That's why RWA is so special. They treat you like a person."
"Guys were coming back to the shelter from RWA saying, 'I found a way out,'" Naz continues. "I believed them, because I had slept next to them and I could see with my own eyes how well they were doing now. There's nobody better to lead you out of a minefield, than someone who has been in the minefield."
It is to that mission that Naz now devotes his life. From sweeping the streets, he rose through every rank in the RWA program, eventually being hired to help reorganize the Harlem facility that The Doe Fund took over in 1996. He played a major role in transforming it from the "hell hole" it once was into the safe, clean, and remarkably constructive place it is today. But just when he was getting comfortable in that job, "They cornered me again," Naz smiles, asking him to become the Director of Gates Avenue. "It was frightening at first, coming back to manage a place where I was once aclient," he recalls, "but now there's no doubt in my mind that I can do this job. I love my work. They have to force me to take days off. I've lost more vacation days in this organization than anyone else and I don't care. For the first time ever, I'm a productive member of society and I'm reaching back to bring other people with me. That's why this program is so important.
We're helping men -- mostly minority men -- take their rightful place in society: as fathers to their children; as husbands to their wives; as good employees. It never ceases to amaze me how they go through this program and just blossom like flowers."