By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — As part of the 135th anniversary of the founding of Catholic Charities in Kansas City, the success of the Turn Around program, which helps former offenders re-enter their communities, was celebrated at a dinner Sept. 30.
Former offenders joined staff members and friends of TurnAround to hear former Kansas City Royal Willie Mays Aikens, who was sentenced to 20 years and 8 months on four counts of cocaine distribution, and related charges in 1994. His story of addiction, prison and return to professional baseball was recently published in a book, Willie Mays Aikens: Safe at Home, by Gregory Jordan.
Although Aikens’ turn around was not assisted by Catholic Charites, he was asked to speak because he was a household name, and an inspiration to young people, said TurnAround director Jan Motl.
Nationally, nearly nine million people annually are released from federal, state and local jails. About 40 percent of those men and women are back behind bars within three years. The Missouri recidivism rate is 41.8 percent.
TurnAround assists ex-offenders with emergency needs, case management, mentoring, job training, placement and retention. Motl said that in mid-2012, TurnAround received a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to train ex-offenders in job skills and help them find jobs. Since then, 414 former offenders have received services from TurnAround. Of those, 70 percent received job preparation training, 90 percent of clients enrolled in vocational or education skill training received certificates and 63 percent of the programs’ clients found employment. TurnAround has maintained a 12 percent recidivism rate. Not only are former offenders getting their lives, families and self-esteem back, their communities have been made safer.
Ex-offenders have found skills and work through TurnAround as truck drivers, welders, computer programmers, forklift operators, chefs and food service workers, barbers, warehouse staff and other types of work.
Several clients spoke of their own experiences. Kevin said after his release from prison last year, “God sent me to Catholic Charities. He has too much to do so he picked it to help him out.”
He doesn’t want to be taken care of. He wants to make it on his own. Through TurnAround, Kevin received job training in warehouse processing, which gave him the skills to get, and keep, a job.
Keith served 33 years in prison, and was released in 2013. He had no place to go, no skills and no plan, but he had a mother who kept telling him to go to Catholic Charities. He’s glad he did.
“I am working and doing great,” he said. “Catholic Charities gave me a chance to do what I needed to do to live a better life. Their care and concern means a lot.”
An inmate may make many plans while incarcerated, but the plans often fly out the window when he or she is released. Corey made lots of “good plans,” but fear of the future when he stepped outside the prison overwhelmed him. “I was scared,” he recalled, “even though I wanted a job and I wanted to go to church. Catholic Charities saved me. They hooked me up with warehouse job training. Now I am a warehouse foreman, promoted two months ago.”
He took an intense 7-month workplace leadership course to learn to listen and help fellow staff members get what they really need from their job. And he has established a relationship with his daughter. “Me and my ex-wife are now actually partners in educating our daughter.”
Motl thanked several specialists and volunteers who assist Catholic Charities with the TurnAround program and a mentor who has worked with both groups and individuals.
Keynote speaker Willie Mays Aikens, 59, said “there is life after prison!” He credits God with his success. He wanted to share his story with the folks at the dinner —“To show how important this is to me,” he said, “I didn’t go to the Royal’s game tonight. This is the first time my guys have made it to the playoffs since 1985.”
He recounted growing up “dirt-poor,” in Seneca, South Carolina, never knowing who his biological father was and accepting Jesus Christ as his personal savior when he was 13. His athletic talents enabled him to attend South Carolina State University on a baseball and football scholarship. Aiken’s high school baseball coach helped him get into a semi-professional summer baseball league in Baltimore after the university dropped baseball the summer before Aikens’ sophomore year. Aikens was noticed by a California Angels scout and drafted by the Angels in the Jan. 1975 Amateur draft.
He started out in the California farm system, but was traded to the Kansas City Royals in 1980. His playing improved and by 1983 he was batting over .300. Friendships between Aikens, George Brett and Hal McRae grew strong. His career, however, was sliding. Aikens had discovered cocaine.
After the 1983 season, Aikens and three teammates pleaded guilty and were sentenced to three months in prison on charges of attempting to purchase or possession of cocaine.
Around the time of his release, Aikens was mandated by the court to undergo regular drug testing provided by Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph. In the meantime, Aikens had been traded to the Toronto Blue Jays and joined the team in May, 1984. A year later, after a so-so season, Aikens was released and resigned to a minor league contract. He played for several minor league teams and in the Mexican League for six years, but never returned to the major leagues.
By 1991, Aikens had developed a heavy cocaine habit, constantly using the drug from 1991 to 1994, by his own admission. “Cocaine had become a part of my life,” he said.
The Kansas City Police Department put his condo under constant surveillance in Dec. 1993. A female undercover police officer approached Aikens, and eventually established a rapport with him, culminating in her purchasing about 2.2 ounces of crack cocaine over several months.
Aikens was arrested in March 1994, and within weeks was indicted by a grand jury on four counts of crack cocaine distribution. The federal sentencing guidelines were tougher on crack than on powdered cocaine; Aikens was sentenced as if he had sold 15 pounds of powdered cocaine, receiving a sentence of 10 years and 8 months for the drug sales and five years on a bribery charge. He also received an additional 5 years for having a gun in the room where the drug sales occurred. His sentence was to be served at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary.
Growing up, Aikens “stuttered real bad.” The stutter disappeared in prison, after Aikens rediscovered a spiritual life. He had been incarcerated about two years when he started reading the Bible, going to chapel and to Bible study groups. “I had accepted Jesus as my savior when I was 13. I talked the talk, but never walked the walk,” he said. “Then I rededicated myself to God. He wanted to use me and took away my stutter.”
He was due to be released in 2012. Aikens applied for presidential clemency twice. President Bill Clinton and later George W. Bush both denied his appeals. However, in 2008, Congress approved new federal drug law guidelines and made them retroactive. Aikens was released in June 2008.
There was a rapt silence in the room while he spoke.
“The TurnAround Program is so important,” he said, “because the mind-set of the person who is incarcerated is to do what they know after prison. That’s not the right decision, because what they know is what got them in prison in the first place.”
He continued, “My release from prison reaffirmed that God will bless you if you walk in his ways,” Aikens said. “I didn’t get out of prison when I wanted to. I got out when God decided I was ready.”
A few months later, Aikens apologized to the Royals and to Kansas City in the Kansas City Star.
Since his release he has spoken to Royals young players about his experiences and the dangers of involvement in the drug culture. He has also spoken at schools. Always hoping to return to baseball, he reconnected with Brett, who put in a good word for him with Dayton Moore, Royals General Manager.
Aikens stayed in touch with McRae while in prison, and McRae was able to set his former teammate up in road construction in Blue Springs.
Aikens had two daughters by an earlier relationship, who were 5 and 6 years old at the time of his incarceration. Although they weren’t strangers, there wasn’t much of a relationship between father and daughters, he said. Once released, he reconnected with them. “Now I am going to church to thank God for his help and I’m being a daddy to my daughters.” who are both successful young professionals.
“I never knew what it was like to be a father to a baby, to a small child. I prayed that Sara (his wife) would have a baby. My youngest, Sarita, was born in 2010. God answered my prayers,” Aikens smiled and groaned at the same time. “She’s four.”
A month after the baby’s birth, Sara suffered a stroke which left her paralyzed on one side.The Royals had signed Aikens to a one-year contract as a minor league batting coach, stationed in Surprise, Ariz. Sara’s stroke and the baby delayed Aikens taking the position. The contract is up for renewal and Aikens hopes it will be renewed.
Coming to events like this, he said, reminds him of where he came from and where he doesn’t want to return. He told the assembled listeners, “Don’t give up, on yourself, your family and don’t give up on God. You can depend on Him. You don’t have to experience it, let my experience be your guide. Allow yourself to be brainwashed by the Holy Spirit, the one Jesus sent to help us. He’s inside all of us.”
Aikens closed with an old Cherokee tale, The Battle of the Wolves. “A grandfather was telling his grandson the story of the Battle of the Wolves. One was evil —the embodiment of anger, jealousy, hatred, gluttony, selfishness, egoism and more. The other was good —love, sympathy, friendliness, joy, unselfishness, peace, serenity, kindness and faith. The two fought ferociously all the time.
When the grandfather stopped for breath, his grandson asked, “Which one wins?”
“’Why,’ answered the grandfather, ‘the one you feed.’ Which one are you feeding?”