Ex-convict, former principal help at-risk Michigan youth

By NICK BUCKLEY
Battle Creek Enquirer
AP Member Exchange
BATTLE CREEK– Damon Brown posed a hypothetical for a group of five kids seated in front of him.
“What are the consequences if you rob somebody?” he asked.
“You could get locked up,” answered one of the kids gathered for a mentoring session at the Urban League of Battle Creek.
“And who would that affect?” Brown responded.
“You and your family.”
“And what about the person being robbed,” Brown added. “And how will it affect their family?”
Brown has had time to think about such scenarios. He’s had his own run-ins with the law.
The Battle Creek native spent 12 years in prison for selling crack cocaine after he was arrested as part of a federal drug sweep in 2001.
Before that, he was in a gang with a group of neighborhood friends that called themselves GBL (Gangsters By Law). His best friend, Tremain Watson, was shot and killed in 1996. The following year, he witnessed another friend, Quincy Webb, get shot and killed.
He was charged with the murder of Jermel Smith in 1997, but released due to a lack of evidence. He has been shot at on multiple occasions. A scar from a bullet wound is still visible on his wrist.
“When I talk to these kids, I can pull up my sleeve and show them I’ve been shot before,” Brown told the Battle Creek Enquirer . “I’ve held one of my best friends in my arms with his brains hanging all over. I grew up with a mother who was on drugs. I did 12 years in prison. I know what this feels like. But I know the thinking that got me there.”
Brown takes accountability for the decisions he’s made, saying he put himself in prison. But it took years for him to understand how he came to make those decisions.
When he boarded “Con Air,” it was Brown’s first time on an airplane. He spent 10 years behind bars serving federal and state sentences that ran consecutive, with stops in Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Michigan before getting out in 2010. In 2012, he returned to prison for an additional two years after violating his parole.
“I tell everybody the two years were harder than the 10,” Brown said. “Because it was like deja vu. I put myself right back in the situation.”
Brown emerged from prison as a free man intent on becoming a new man.
The father of three and grandfather of one said he now has a “beautiful relationship” with his mother, who is going on her 17th year of sobriety. He has also formed a better connection with his father.
“Love those who love you, not the ones you love,” Brown said. “They’ve been showing it. Don’t tell me you love me, show me. I had to understand that on my second trip to prison. I’m living my life for the wrong reasons and the wrong people.”
After his second stint in prison, Brown was hired as a security guard at a local rehabilitation facility. His ability to connect with patients resulted in a promotion, eventually becoming a certified cognitive behavioral facilitator where he led group therapy sessions.
Brown also helped start up a Battle Creek chapter of the youth mentoring program called The Big Homies Club. This past school year, he volunteered to lead a bi-weekly social and emotional learning course at Northwestern Middle School, and is on pace to becoming a certified drug and alcohol counselor.
Brown’s latest venture is a program called Reintegration to Support and Empower or RISE. The aim is to help at-risk youth realize their potential by using life-altering strategies that address their social and emotional well-being.
Brown’s not doing it alone.
Tim Reese says he was “mischievous,” but was an otherwise good kid growing up in a two-parent household in Battle Creek.
He attended Western Michigan University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in physical education and health. While still in college, a friend helped land him a job at a juvenile home as a child care specialist. He then spent six years as an intensive probation officer for juvenile offenders before taking a job with a Battle Creek Public Schools program called Operation G.R.A.D. Reese stayed in education for the past 29 years, working primarily at inner city schools, most recently as a middle school principal for Battle Creek Public Schools.