24 Mar Graduate Spotlight: Tim Matthews
After nearly two decades in prison, a visit from his daughter changed Tim Mathews’s life. Tim remembers the precise date, October 20, 2007, and he recalls the details vividly.
His daughter, Mikayla, was wearing a pretty white dress. Her grandmother, Arlene, had brought along food. They ate and Tim and Mikayla played cards. Even in a state prison, the setting was relaxed and they shared a really nice time as a family. At the end of the visit, Mikayla, who was six, began to cry. “She grabbed my leg and she said, ‘Please, daddy, come home,’’ he said. He told her that he couldn’t. “Can’t you just tell them you’re sorry?’’ he remembers her saying. Tim had to stop to regain his composure as he recounted the scene.
“That was the moment of clarity,’’ he said. “I realized that I couldn’t live for her, and I used to say all the time that I could die for her.’’
Tim, who was then 36, realized that he had a choice: he did not have to follow the path set by his father, who died in prison. Tim was himself only five years old when his father was first sentenced for robbery. Other options were available, if only Tim had the strength to pull himself out of a life of drug addiction and crime.
His life was a cycle of time in jail and on the streets. He was sent to jail 10 times in all, serving time at Rikers and in state prisons. After he completed a sentence, he would be homeless, sleeping “wherever I could’’ — on the subway, in filthy apartments, and he would be consumed with getting high.
Upon his release the last time, Tim signed up for a residential drug treatment program, where he spent nine months. Then he enrolled in an outpatient drug program. It was a challenging time, with temptations everywhere.
“I kept my daughter in the front of my mind,’’ he recalled. “When I came home, I knew that I had a substance abuse problem. I knew I had to stop.’’
Tim completed his drug treatment program. “I needed to start completing things, to accomplish things in my life,’’ he said.
Then, after hearing about The Doe Fund from a man he’d met in drug treatment, Tim sought to enroll. In September 2009, he became a trainee at the residential center on Gates Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. He swept streets and sidewalks with the other “men in blue” in the Ready, Willing & Able program.
“I worked really hard,’’ he said. He took classes and worked as a supervised intern to earn a certificate as a counselor. “I’m getting there,’’ he said. “I’m accomplishing things.’’
Tim lived in Brooklyn with Mikayla, her mother and her grandparents for three years. He took his daughter to school every day and helped out in countless ways, including when the health of Mikayla’s grandfather began to fail.
“I think the hardest part was not the work I had to go through to get where I am today,’’ he said.
His daughter is now 19, a junior in college in Florida, majoring in Jewish studies and thinking about becoming a teacher or a lawyer. She’s a straight A student, her father said proudly. “She’s definitely mature for her age and grounded,’’ he said. “She’s doing amazingly. She has a heart of gold. I’m just so proud of the woman she’s growing into.’’
Tim is also thriving. Today, at 50, he is the associate director of The Doe Fund’s residential center in Harlem. He directly oversees a dozen employees, including case managers, social service personnel and others. And as the second in command at the large center, he is involved in everything from substance abuse to helping trainees reestablish family ties.
“I’m just so grateful that I was able to crawl my way out,’’ he said. “For a time, I kept dwelling on all the time I wasted. But today I’m a better person for what I went through.’’
Now he’s dedicated to helping others trying to make that same transition. “I want to afford every person who walks through that door the same opportunity that was offered to me,’’ he said.