From struggling with substance abuse, sleeping with rats the size of my shoes and eating out of the garbage on Grand Avenue, to graduating from college with a Masters Degree!

I grew up in Harlem on 125th and Amsterdam, just me and my mother. She made $1.19 an hour scrubbing floors all day and doing laundry at night. I never knew my Father. I was a Boot Black - Nickel and Shine! I started when I was eight years old. I’d take my shoe shine box to the Jazz clubs Thursday through Saturday. All the pimps would meet at a bar called Smiley’s. I’d shine their shoes and they’d give me $20 a piece. They used to call me “Little Man.” I shined shoes for Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders and Dr. Martin Luther King!

My Mother got a boyfriend when I was 14. We didn’t hit it off. I’d been the man of the house since I was 9. I had my little routine; I was making $120 a week with my Nickel and Shine business and selling the collard greens my mother grew in the back yard to the neighbors for $1 a bunch. The new boyfriend came in, took my role and criticized every thing I did. I got angry and left. My mother didn’t see or hear from me for seven years. I found myself a studio flat, got a second job at a grocery store and put myself through High School and graduated.  

I started using when I was sixteen. I turned on, tuned in and dropped out. I didn’t know who I was, always somebody else. In some ways it was an exciting time, magical even. I did everything I wanted to do including traveling to Sweden, Germany and France.

I got homesick and returned to the US. I dealt drugs and hung out with the “beautiful people.” We bought Bordeaux and Chardonnay and only drank Hennessy cognac with our cocaine. I carried a 9 millimeter Smith and Western and got into a couple of shoot-outs with Rastafarians and Police officers. I ended up in Sing Sing prison for assault on a guy who wouldn’t pay up the money I lent him!

When I got out of prison, I stopped using and found work in construction. I got married and had a couple of kids. I came home sick from work one day and found my wife in bed with another man. I cocked my double barreled shot-gun, but I couldn’t pull the trigger. I turned and walked away and never went back. That was thirty years ago and I’ve not seen my kids since. I called their Grandmother a while back and my son contacted me just before he went to Sing Sing. He’s there for possession of crack. I’m estranged from my daughter.

A few years after that I was in the Bowery Mission and I ran into a Preacher. He offered to pay my flight to Kansas City for a two week outreach celebration. Then they put me through bible college! In my Junior year I got a call to say my Mother was mentally incapable of taking care of herself so I brought her to Kansas City. She saw me graduate from seminary and we had two good years together. We were watching TV one evening, she put her head on my shoulder and died. That was December 1997. I couldn’t stop the pain and I couldn’t sleep or eat. In one year I went from a 42 inch waist to a 28! I’d been clean from drugs and alcohol for ten years. One night I bought some good wine, by the end of the week the trash barrel was full of bottles and I had spent $300 on crack cocaine. I lost my job, my car, and my house and I slept in abandoned buildings with rats the size of my shoes.

Two years later I was laying down at the bus stop outside UMB Bank on 18th and Grand. It was August 5th, 1999 and I was 49 years old. I pulled a cardboard box over my head and prayed, “God, I need help.” Later a dealer came along and told me where a detox place was! They gave me a warm bed and fed me for three days. On the last day I got a phone-call. I was surprised coz there was no-one who cared about whether I was dead or alive. It was an offer of a detox treatment plan. It was freezing outside and I was guaranteed three hots and a cot and some classes. AA came in to teach us about the grieving process and a light went on. I could apply it to what I had been through. I learnt about the attitudes and mindset of an addict and everything made sense. 

During treatment I was diagnosed with Bi-polar 1 and put on medication. I went on to another 90 day program and then to transitional housing. It was there I overheard a conversation about Elementary and Secondary Vocational Services. I applied and the following Fall found myself on a bus going to college. I graduated with my Associates in Addiction Counseling. From there I graduated from Parkville University with a Bachelors in Clinical Psychology and in May 2014 I graduated from UMKC with a Masters in Social Work. 

How did you come to RS? In April 2015 I called RS because I’d gotten behind with utilities and rent. I couldn’t get a job in social work and I was working in a group home making $7.50 an hour. It just wasn’t cutting it. Mr. Turbo asked me to bring in my resume. Fr. Justin interviewed me and offered me a temporary position for three months managing the phones and the front desk. That rolled over into another three months and in December 2015 Fr. Justin took me out to lunch and offered me a permanent job! Words cannot express what I felt in that moment.

What are your dreams? I want to be the best Social Worker possible. I take my LMSW exam in May 2016. Penny Engstrom, one of the case managers at RS, studies with me on Saturdays for a couple of hours to help me out. That’s what I love about Reconciliation Services, they remind me of what God can do through people who make friends with people, like Jesus did. They have loved on me, guided me and helped me in the profession I want to be in. Turbo is my mentor and friend and is always available for my questions. He’s never criticized me, just helps me navigate difficulties and cheers me on!

If you could change anything in your life what would it be? I would have spent more time with my mother. I wouldn’t have stayed away from her for so long.

If you could give a piece of advice to someone what would you say? If you’re an addict, ask God for help and if you don’t know how, I’ll help you. You can do it! If I can do it, anyone can!

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Story: Lyn Morse-Brown
Photo credit: Tom Morse-Brown