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Saving Isaiah
Comments () | Published March 1, 2010

Roberta Rinker and Deon Smith run FutureBound for kids like Isaiah. Says Rinker: "Part of our program is about helping them heal." Photograph by Matthew Worden.

When a young woman had older men coming over—every visitor has to be approved—Rinker and her colleagues stood in the parking lot waiting for them. “Turn around,” they said to the men.

During the few months Isaiah was living on the streets, he got into a fight with a kid he’d known since elementary school because the boy had sold drugs to a pregnant woman. The same woman had approached Isaiah earlier. “No,” he’d told her. “Go home.”

He had a system when he was dealing. A friend left cocaine for him in a mailbox every morning. Isaiah stashed $10 dope bags at the bottom of a hill, hung out on the block all day, and brought the drugs up when he had buyers. He hung around people who had guns, so he didn’t need one.

He wasn’t worried about cops: He didn’t keep drugs on him—he was too smart for that. Why would they suspect a young kid? School was too far away, so he didn’t go, and nobody bothered him about it.

He never got into anybody’s car. If someone asked for more than ten bags, Isaiah wouldn’t sell to that person—big buys meant trouble.

He brought in $375 on a bad day, close to $600 on a good one. He walked away with 60 percent and put the rest in a mailbox. He paid his cell-phone bill and bought new clothes but gave most of the money to a cousin and asked her to hide it.

Nobody would take him in while he was dealing, so at night he’d get a room alone at a motel or find a vacant rowhouse near Johns Hopkins. He’d kick in the door and lock it from the inside. He stayed only in places that were being remodeled and had running water. He liked the feel and smell of new carpeting, so falling asleep was easy. He cried when he dreamed his mother was there.

Every night he walked to the corner store to buy boxers, a towel, and soap. He had to shower: There were days in the summer when he’d be inside bagging dope and start to feel high just from touching it, as if it were seeping through his pores.

Rinker once had a job knocking on doors in Southeast DC trying to track down the birth parents of abandoned babies. She’s worked with lots of drug dealers. She understands why Isaiah laughs when you ask if he was using drugs in Baltimore. Of course he wasn’t: He would never smoke up his profit.

“Most people living that lifestyle want a different lifestyle,” she says. “During the election, I worked the polls. Every drug dealer in my neighborhood came and voted. They put on dress clothes. They had their stickers on that said ‘I voted.’ ”

It doesn’t surprise her when Isaiah says he’d go back to dealing if he felt he had no other choice: He doesn’t like asking people for help. “That’s the hard part—he knows he can survive that way again,” says Rinker. “We’re trying to give him the skills he needs so he never has to be that desperate again.”

A young man who was discharged from the program but still calls Rinker on Mother’s Day recently stopped by to see her.

“What are you doing for money?” Rinker asked.

“Hustling,” he said.

More than half of the teens in FutureBound leave successfully, with a good job and money to live on; the rest usually get discharged for doing something wrong or leave and end up struggling again. One young woman became a lawyer; another works at NIH. A young man whose mother was abusive got his degree from the University of Maryland—most kids in FutureBound can find scholarships to pay for college—and went to work for the National Center for Children and Families.

Krystal McKinney, NCCF’s manager of adolescent services, received a letter from someone who’d done well at FutureBound but had gotten in a fight in the community and ended up in jail.

“Thank you for all that you did for me,” he wrote.

“There’s a connection that’s made,” McKinney says. “There’s this feeling of ‘Regardless of what I do when I leave, you all did teach me something.’ ”

The only thing Isaiah would eat when he was locked up in the summer of 2007 was chicken nuggets and fries. New guys came in trying to look tough, with their chests out, which made him mad.

Still, he didn’t mind it there. It wasn’t a real jail. “Baby bookings,” as he called it, felt like daycare. He played video games and basketball with cellmates. He missed seeing girls, but he got to take classes, which he hadn’t done in months. The guards knew his brothers and sisters, so they brought him fast food. He stopped having to look over his shoulder.

Isaiah spent about six months at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center after cops arrested him for possession, and at times he didn’t want to leave. His aunt Angie lived close by but wouldn’t visit.

“I was really angry with him,” she says. “I told him, ‘You hard-headed. You don’t listen. I’ve done all I can for you.’ I had to let him hit bottom.”

One day his sister showed up.

“What you here for?” he asked. Her voice was trembling. “What’s wrong?”

“You know I care for you,” she said.

“Uh-huh.” Bad news was coming. She never talked that way.

“Aila died,” she said.

When Isaiah was 12, he’d watched a friend get hit by a Mack truck while they were playing in the street. His best friend was shot to death walking home from school while Isaiah stood next to him. Now it was Aila—one of his sisters, dead of a seizure.

“What?” he said. “I didn’t hear you.”

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Posted at 04:00 PM/ET, 03/01/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles