The coin that Bradley Holmes keeps on his dresser is about the size of a silver dollar. It’s worth much more than that, though. He considers it priceless. It’s a symbol that everybody needs a second chance, and maybe a second second chance.
We’re at the Richardson Youth Center, which is in the basement of a building at Richardson Dwellings, a public-housing development a few blocks off East Capitol Street in Northeast Washington.
“I came from the same environment these children came from,” says Holmes, who for six years has worked at the youth center that is operated by Sasha Bruce Youthwork, a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand. Now Holmes runs it, arriving at 4 every weekday to unlock the door and usher in the kids, primarily ages 12 to 20, with a few younger ones eager to tag along.
Holmes’s mother was 14 when she gave birth to him and his twin brother. It couldn’t have been easy for her, he knows now. It wasn’t easy for him.
At age 24, he was sent to the penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan., for robbing a bank while armed. He returned to D.C. when he was 41 — and promptly started violating his parole. “I basically had accepted that my life was going to be what it was: one of hopelessness, one of destruction and defiance,” says Holmes, 53.
But a parole officer named Darryl Hughes saw something in Holmes. “He said, ‘I notice each time you’re getting better.’ That allowed me the room I needed to turn my life around. Here was a guy in a position to drop the hammer on me. He kept saying, ‘You can do it.’ ”
And Holmes did. He stayed out of trouble and completed counseling courses, and his remaining parole — 27 years — were excused.
Tonight at the youth center, some boys are playing checkers. A pair of girls color. In a room full of easels for an art class coming up, two little girls have placed picture books on the floor. They just like the look of all those books, a veritable mosaic.
In the computer room, Larry Fullerton is watching as teens take an online quiz to see how well they know what it takes to get a D.C. learner’s permit. Larry retired from a big law firm, serves on the Sasha Bruce Youthwork board and volunteers at the youth center.
“They don’t care who your connections are, what your job is,” Holmes says of the kids. “All they care about is do you care about them? And they do know we care about them.”
Once a month, a barber comes to cut the boys’ hair for free. (“We’re trying to get it every two weeks,” Holmes says.)
In a room at the back, Holmes has stashed bicycles donated by the police department. He plans to fix them up with the kids.
Holmes is cagey with the kids about his past, worried that they might glamorize something he now finds far from glamorous. But he doesn’t hide those years, or what he learned during them. “There ain’t no right way to be wrong,” he says. “I don’t care how you try to cut it, how you try to shape it, how you try to form it.”
Sasha Bruce Youthwork is among local nonprofit groups tapped by the District for a program called Credible Messenger. It’s aimed at young people who have been involved with the court system. Holmes is leading the Sasha Bruce Youthwork mentoring effort through the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.
“We’ll hand-carry them through whatever it is they need, whatever challenges they face,” he said. “Today I stand here a changed, committed, law-abiding, taxpaying citizen. I definitely know what transformation looks like.”
Holmes’s transformation looks like a silver dollar, with an eagle on one side, a flag on the other, and the words Honor, Integrity and Justice. “I was so proud to get this thing,” the man who robbed a bank says of the coin given to him by his old parole officer.
Sasha Bruce Youthwork provides a range of services, including a shelter for homeless teens, G.E.D. classes, transitional housing, sexual-health outreach — and the youth center at Richardson Dwellings. Your tax-deductible donation can help ensure that this vital work continues.
To donate online, visit posthelpinghand.com. To donate by mail, make a check payable to “Sasha Bruce Youthwork” and mail it to: Sasha Bruce Youthwork, 741 Eighth St. SE, Washington, D.C. 20003. Attention: James Beck.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.