A Second Chance
Have you ever heard that “people don’t change?”
I have. I didn’t know whether or not this was true until I was 19. I was on summer break from college and I was looking for a job. While I was waiting to heard back from places I had applied to I decided to start a volunteer job to stay busy.
My grandmother was volunteering at a halfway home at the time and said that they could use some help. This program takes men who have been in jail or drug rehab and gets them back on their feet by providing education, jobs, and most of all: discipline. My grandmother taught the men how to read and write. She told me that they didn’t need any help in the education department but that they could use some help in their gym.
The gym is a 15-minute walk from the actual facility. The men that wanted to work out had to walk there after work and hurry back in time for dinner. There was already a man who ran the gym program but he was looking for help. Since I was a certified personal trainer at that point I was a natural fit.
I showed up on the first day not knowing what to expect. Honestly I had never been around ex-convicts before. I had only seen the inside of a prison from shows on the Discovery channel. I had an image in my head of a rough and intimidating group of men, ready to snap at a moment’s notice. Needless to say, I was nervous.
I opened the door to the gym and stepped down two concrete steps to enter. It was a bright summer’s day and the gym was dimly lit, so it took my eyes a second to adjust. When my eyes focused, I quickly scanned the room. It looked like the training scene from a Rocky movie. The gym equipment was all donated from other gyms. The squat racks were rusty and there were only a few dumbbells, barbells, a bench press, and an old cable machine. Christian rock was blasting on a portable FM radio.
The man who ran the gym saw me and walked over to greet me first. He introduced himself simply as “Pete.” He had long, silver hair, and a warm, vibrant smile. He turned around and introduced me to the guys in the gym. They were a rag-tag bunch, with old gym shorts and wife-beaters. I shook their hands one-by-one. The last person I greeted was Fred. He was the least friendly. He took a menacing step towards me and shook my hand, all without breaking eye contact or showing emotion. He stepped back and maintained his menacing gaze. He was fairly built and had a shark tooth necklace on. Fred seemed like the stereotypical ex-con, the type of guy that I needed to avoid.
As it turns out, Fred was the first person to approach me to ask questions. He kept asking me to check his form, what type of exercises he should do, and what type of food he should eat. I quickly learned that Fred had energy. Lots of energy. He would yell and carry on during the workouts, pumping everyone up including himself. He was excited to be in the gym. The rest of the program was so disciplined; the gym was the only place that he could really be himself.
Fred’s energy level could get him in trouble. Occasionally someone would say something offensive to him and he would react quickly with a string of curse words. Whenever that happened he would lose gym privileges for a week and his absence would be felt in the gym.
Fred’s energy was what made him so caring. During that summer I broke my finger and had pins and a cast. I came in the day after surgery to help out at the gym. As I was entering the gym Fred rounded the corner and spotted me from the sidewalk. “NO!” he shouted and started storming over to me.
I thought I was done for. I froze and watched him approach, looking furious. He stopped inches from my face, pointed to my finger, and demanded “what happened?”
“I-I broke my finger Fred. It’s really not a big deal” I stammered.
“NO! You can’t get hurt man. I can’t believe it! You’re like a little brother to me” Fred said, pacing back and forth.
You see, Fred cared about me. While he was passionate in his anger and passionate about exercise, he was also passionate in his sympathy for others. Fred cared about me. That day he followed me around the gym, making sure that I didn’t exert myself. He kept telling me to “go sit down and rest!” Fred, the guy who started as the most intimidating guy in the gym, was now the guy who was overly empathetic towards me and my broken finger. My perception of Fred was changed.
As the summer went on I learned more about Fred. He started to tell me about his past. He had done plenty of illegal things, including using drugs and robbing people. Now, would I normally hang out with someone who had done all of those things? No. However, Fred had changed. He no longer did drugs. He didn’t hurt people anymore. In fact, he cared about me. He cared about working out. By the end of the program, he wanted to go to nursing school. He wanted to be a better father to his daughters, a better husband to his wife.
Fred had changed. I was lucky enough to witness this change. When I first met Fred, I didn’t know what crimes he had committed. I knew that he had been to jail, but I didn’t know why. I treated him just like I would treat anyone else. Maybe if I had known the crimes he committed I would have treated him differently, I don’t know. All I know is that the Fred that I trained that summer was a good guy. He was energetic but he had a good heart.
I know that people can change. I’ve seen it. In order to change we really only need two things: the desire to change and the belief of others. I believed in Fred, I showed him that I cared. Before I knew Fred I probably would have written off an ex-convict as quickly as anyone else, but Fred changed my perspective. He proved the old axiom “people don’t change” dead wrong.