The older boys and I journeyed together on the bus to a gas station. They gave me instructions on how to use my size and age to take advantage of the attendant in the station. At this time, gas stations were not self-service. So, when the attendant went out to pump gas, I would sneak out of the bathroom and get into the cash register and sneak out before he got back.
The very first time was a success, and I took the boys a handful of money. They gave me about $20 and kept about $150 for themselves. They underestimated my smarts because the next day when they tried to take me again, I knew I didn’t need them to do it. I started going on my own and became notoriously known around St. Louis County for that crime itself.
I started getting locked up for school truancy, then for being a runaway and then for petty crimes. I would run away from home, going on one of these escapades to get money. I was 9 years old walking around with $300-$400 in my pocket.
From age 7 to 33 I was in and out of the juvenile and adult prison systems. I remember a traumatic and lifetime-humbling experience with police officers with our guns drawn and their K-9 dog simultaneously chewing on my ankles. I could have died that day. A police officer could have died that day. I have an appreciation of how difficult it is for everyone in that type of situation, an appreciation that doesn’t come from reading or seeing a video.
Prison allowed me time to reflect on my life and see the results of so many bad decisions I had made. I was able achieve my G.E.D. and an associate’s degree. Even though my family had lost hope in me, I developed relationships with staff and mentors at the St. Louis County Juvenile Detention Center. Once I was released from prison, these were the first people I contacted. They began sneaking me in the Juvenile Detention Center to share my experiences with the kids.
Getting out of prison was almost like being an animal born in the zoo who suddenly found himself in a natural habitat trying to survive. After a year of release, I left Missouri and spent time in Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina, where I continued this passion and empathy I have for at-risk youth. I returned to St. Louis, where I have struggled at times to support myself, but I am determined to help kids choose a different path.
I currently work at Ballpark Village. My employer has supported my work to help at-risk youth, actually going with me when I volunteered to share my story with youth in detention. Because of my employer’s support, I was able to start a non-profit organization, Sudden Impact, ICU. This non-profit is dedicated to offering life skills support and skill development to at-risk youth through inspirational speaking and employment resources. Ballpark Village also offers employment opportunities for some of these at-risk youth.
My goals are to increase the programs we offer for at-risk youth by increasing the number of volunteers who support our efforts and the financial support for Sudden Impact, ICU to build a Safe Haven Housing Project for at-risk youth. I want my legacy to be about how my life has changed since I’ve been released from prison, not about what I was doing during the first 33 years of my life.
Demetrius Evans is a mentor to the youth at the St. Louis Family Court and Epworth Youth Center. He founded Sudden Impact, ICU, which offers life skills support, skill development, and employment resources to inspire at-risk youth.
“Homegrown Black Males” is a partnership between HomeGrown STL at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis and The St. Louis American, edited by Sean Joe, Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor and associate dean at the Brown School, and Chris King, managing editor of The American, in memory of Michael Brown.