Lives crippled by crime and addiction can be saved, with help from private and state-run organizations devoted to helping people get back on their feet
Whenever James Anderson met a troubled soul at West End Neighborhood House or while roving the streets of Wilmington, he shared the wisdom that he’d worked so hard to earn: With time, perseverance, and a sturdy support system, anything is possible. No matter how dire the personal struggles, fresh starts and second chances are out there for those who seek them.
“People say it’s impossible,” says Anderson. “I’m living proof that it isn’t.”
Anderson, a 35-year-old from Kennett Square, Pa., spent the better part of 10 years in and out of trouble with the law, including a three-and-a-half-year stint in Chester County Prison on felony drug charges.
Even after his release, his criminal history made finding a job exceedingly difficult. Eventually, he was referred to the West End Neighborhood House in Wilmington for its free Employment Training program. “I was there every day,” Anderson says.
While he advanced through the various job preparedness workshops and training sessions, he also volunteered to help with some of West End’s projects and events. In 2012, after he earned his Customer Service Certification, West End’s director, Paul Calistro, offered him a part-time position as an outreach recruiter. “I was walking around the city, recruiting kids to sign up, trying to get them to reap some of the benefits that I did,” Anderson says.” My main goal was to show them there was something different out there.”
His story is not uncommon to many young people in and around Delaware. Anderson was raised by his grandparents in a predominantly black neighborhood in Kennett Square. Constance and Melvin Anderson provided for James and his two cousins as best they could, but James soon gave in to the allure of the streets and the fast money to be made in dealing drugs. By 14, Anderson began selling marijuana so that he could afford the things his grandparents couldn’t buy for him. Not long after graduating from Avon Grove High School, he says, “I decided there wasn’t enough money in that, and I turned to crack cocaine.”
His brushes with the law escalated. At 27, he was charged with his first felony. Two years later, he was caught by Delaware police with an ounce of crack, and served six months at Sussex Correctional Institution’s “Boot Camp” program in Georgetown before being extradited to Pennsylvania for another 18 months in prison.
From there, Anderson moved in with family members in New Castle, which turned out to be a bad idea. “There was no support system,” he says. “Almost right away I turned back to that lifestyle.” Just two months after his move, he violated his probation and was sentenced to the maximum jail time, plus more probation, extradition and house arrest. The experience humbled him.
During his incarceration, he missed birthdays, celebrations and milestones. His grandfather passed away. And he lost touch with his young daughter. “A life of fast money was worth more to me than my family. I’ve lost things that I can’t get back.”
In jail, he decided his life needed forward momentum, so he signed on to work in the prison’s kitchen, at 28 cents an hour. The job was thankless and tedious, but it was a job. “I thought, if I can do this in here there’s no reason I can’t do it out there. Why can’t I work a minimum wage job and get myself in order?”
Once released, Anderson found his way to Brandywine Counseling’s drug-focused Plummer Center program, where a counselor referred him to Catherine Hoopes, a community outreach employment coordinator at West End. “I called and set up an appointment,” Anderson says. “And from the beginning they said: if you put the work in, we can help.”
Thanks to Hoopes, Calistro, and the team at West End, Anderson found fulltime employment as a forklift operator last year. Since then he’s earned two raises and a promotion. He’s also been prematurely released from his probation.
“They took a chance on me when no one else would,” he says. “Coming out of a situation like mine, it’s tough to find people to have your back. That’s what West End did for me. I can walk in there today and be welcomed.”
Anderson’s experience at West End is one of many transformations that have occurred at the century-old center on Wilmington’s Lincoln Street. In 2013 alone, the agency served more than 9,000 individuals, providing “outcome-driven programming” in areas like financial management, housing, education, and family services.
In Joe Annese’s case, transformation came only after divine intervention.
It was four years ago, and Annese had just drifted to sleep inside a holding cell at Howard R. Young Correctional Institution when he heard God speak.
“It was a loud inner voice saying: ‘Have you had enough? Are you ready for my help?’”
Annese says. “I knew it was God talking.”
Annese wept. “I was humbly in tears. That night I devoted my life to Jesus.”
Hours earlier, he and several housemates had been arrested for selling drugs. For the 50-year-old Wilmington resident, the journey from dishwasher to corporate chef to prison inmate, and finally, to the Sunday Breakfast Mission, was a long and winding trip.
As a smart but hyper kid growing up near the Brooklyn/Queens border in New York City, Annese constantly found himself in trouble, particularly when it came to drugs and theft. His parents raised him Catholic, but he was hardly devout.
He got hooked on cocaine in the ‘80s, and later, crack. For 10 years he was clean, and climbed to the upper echelon of management at food service titan Aramark. His job took him around the region—from Baltimore to Philadelphia to Cecil County, Md., and Annese settled in Wilmington. But old habits returned, and he was caught embezzling money from his employers. He quickly relapsed on drugs, and supported his habit by selling them. “Instead of trying to fix the broken problem, I made things worse,” he says. “So the cops came to my house, kicked the door in, took me to jail.”
After his revelation in the holding cell, Annese spent 90 days at the Howard R. Young Correctional Institution near Gander Hill on drug charges before being transferred to Pennsylvania for the embezzlement charges. He was released in 2010 on seven years’ probation. He owed the City of Wilmington massive back taxes, and he was told his home would soon be auctioned off. “I was in a very depressed state,” he says. “All I did was eat, sleep and read the Bible. I wanted to go to church, but didn’t know how to find the one I needed.”
By March of 2011 he was homeless. With nowhere to go, he consulted with Newark’s Rockford Center, who directed him to the Sunday Breakfast Mission. He spent the next seven months as a transient guest there.
He enrolled in the mission’s Men’s Life Issues Discipleship program, and he earned an internship at the facility’s kitchen. He also became an ordained minister through Bible courses at Word of Life Christian Center in Newark. And he began chipping away at an associate’s degree in religious leadership and management from Liberty University online.
One weekend in May, while he was away on a ministry conference, he received a call from the Sunday Breakfast Mission, offering him a fulltime job as a resident specialist. “It was the answer to my prayers,” he says. “Getting paid to minster for God.”
Drawing from his own experiences, Annese counsels residents at the mission, preaching the power of second chances. “The important thing is not only helping them with their life issues, but also their salvation. There’s nothing that God won’t forgive. All you got to do is ask Him.”
Organizations devoted to helping people get back on their feet—be they religious, secular or otherwise—are operating throughout the state. Places like Goodwill of Delaware, the Delaware Skills Center, Sojourners’ Place, Homeward Bound, and the state-run Division of Employment and Training help people in compromised positions gain employment. Additionally, a multitude of state- and privately-run organizations devote services to substance abuse treatment for prisoners and past offenders.
According to the Delaware Department of Corrections, 80 percent of the state’s offender population has issues related to substance abuse, and without intervention and treatment, recidivism rates can top 70 percent. The state offers offenders vocational skills like garment production and auto repair through its Delaware Correctional Industries program, but its capacity is limited.
Faith-based missions like The Ministry of Caring and Sunday Breakfast Mission aim to save lives through devotion. At Sunday Breakfast Mission, located on Poplar Street in Wilmington, Rev. Thomas Laymon and a crew of about 30 fulltime staff plus volunteers encourage a Christian relationship with God. Their comprehensive approach addresses addiction, mental illness, life skills, family relationships and more. Discipleship ministries provide residents like Jennie Rowe and Megan Thing—who’ve suffered through addiction, mental illness and homelessness—the counselling and vocational instruction to pursue post-secondary education classes. Today, Thing is working toward a data management degree from online college Strayer University, while Rowe attends online lectures with Argosy University. She plans to become a Christian counselor, Laymon says.
“We see everyone here as a gift from God, and we’re certain of the fact that He has a plan for each of them,” he says. “Our job is to help each guest find the strength, hope and motivation to discover that very plan.”
You’re not alone. Contact any of the agencies below for vocational assistance, substance abuse counseling, and many other valuable social services.
West End Neighborhood House
710 N. Lincoln St., Wilmington
Goodwill of Delaware
300 E. 43rd St., Wilmington
Delaware Skills Center
1300 Clifford Brown Walk, Wilmington
2901 Governor Printz Blvd., Wilmington
34 Continental Ave., Newark
Ministry of Caring
119 N. Jackson St., Wilmington
Sunday Breakfast Mission
110 N. Poplar St., Wilmington
Division of Employment and Training
4425 North Market St., Wilmington
Pencader Corporate Center
Suite 221, 225 Corporate Blvd., Newark
Suite 104, 1114 S. Dupont Highway, Dover
Suite 207, 600 N. Dupont Highway, Georgetown