Jerry Williams did it. Four months after his parole from Lorton, just as it seemed that the world was closing in around him, he found a job. And for him, that has made all the difference in the world.
The man sleeps better, looks better, sounds better, walks taller.
Ever since his release, Williams had been wrangling with what being free was all about. Although he was out of prison, he was -- in many ways -- very much confined. With no money and no job, he was locked in a survivalist mode of thought, always pressed and often depressed.
Of course, when you haven't worked for six years, and have the stigma of an "ex-con," it's easier to talk about a job than to get one. Nearly half of all parolees are rearrested within the first year of release, and the vast majority of them are unemployed, according to the U.S. attorney's office.
As Williams has learned, nobody is giving jobs away. Although the city has a $5 million program to educate and employ ex-offenders, he spent the past four months pounding the pavement until something finally came through.
And the job he came up with would undoubtably turn many people off. As a laborer for the U.S. Park Service, he begins work at 7 a.m. five days a week, to cut down trees, grind them up and haul them away. His hands are calloused and his eyes are bloodshot from squinting through goggles as he dodges flying wood chips.
After the first day on the job, he went to his sister's apartment, put an ice pack on his aching head and passed out.
But it has proved to be worth it.
"I look at it like a sport," said Williams, who jogged and boxed while in Lorton. "Professional boxers chop down trees to stay in shape, make their backbone strong. I feel great."
His crew is now renovating a park site, inside the Oxon Run Park, located at Fifth Street and Valley Avenue SE. They are clearing out trash and old trees and constructing a "counselor's ring," a circle of tree stumps on which children attending summer camp can sit while listening to the camp director.
"Look what we created," Williams said proudly.
The best part, however, is that paycheck: $5.35 an hour, and the prospect of annual raises. The idea of a regular income have drastically changed the way he thinks.
"When I wake up in the morning, I'm no longer uptight, worried about making it through the day," Williams said. "I can take a little time to dream -- like what kind of car I would like. I want a house, too, but first I want to pay back all the people who stood by me when I was down."
Two months ago, Williams' situation was bleak. With no money in his pocket, he felt like he was a burden to his family. He had begun to worry so much that his doctors thought he had an ulcer and put him on medication. Then, when barbiturates showed up during a routine urine test, his parole officer warned him he could send him back to prison.
Meanwhile, his daily job hunts turned up nothing.
"It was my family," said Williams. "God bless the family, because without someone to stick by me when I was out of it, I'd never get back on my feet."
But there was more to it than that.
"I have learned that there are people out here who will help you if they see you trying to help yourself," Williams said. "When you're down, and your pockets are empty, most people won't give you the time of day. But if you keep plugging away, sooner or later somebody will say, 'Hey, this guy is really trying to make it,' and will give you a hand."
With two weeks of work under his belt, Williams thinks he has finally figured out the secret ingredient of this thing called freedom.
"Freedom," he says, "is having a job."