Michael Gordon is the Furniture Bank Procurement Manager at CARITAS, Richmond's largest provider of services for individuals and families struggling with homelessness and substance abuse. In this extended interview, Michael shared with us his wrenching but ultimately uplifting life story.
No family is perfect. But mine raised me with good core values. My father served in the military for 30 years. We moved around, so I was always the new kid on the block—and always the smallest. I learned how to fit in. My friends came from all over the world. When my father retired, I moved into the first entirely African American neighborhood I had seen. And at that time, in Tidewater, that meant moving into an area full of poverty, drugs, and crime. I didn’t have to do the things that other kids did, but I still wanted to fit in. I began to make bad decisions in my late teens.
When I caught my first drug charge, in 1990, the judge sentenced me to two days in detention to wake me up. I went back to school and did well. I got a real job. But not long after, a fire destroyed our home. My family lost everything. It was a tragic moment for us and it split the family apart. I had a hard time handling it and returned to the drug scene. I was looking for instant gratification, for cash—not stability, not a future. So, for dealers, I was a perfect recruit.
In time, I caught two more drug charges, and was sentenced to 15 years in the penitentiary. I served two and a half years and was allowed to come home. By this time, I had two children—a daughter and a son. I tried to do the right thing. I got a job, but without a high school diploma or GED, I couldn’t get the kind of job you need in order to pay the bills. I remember getting my first paycheck, for $122, and spreading it thin, as far as it would go. It wasn’t enough.
Let me tell you what I knew: I’m a felon, I’m black, and I don’t have an education. So what do I do? I was too scared to go back to jail. Drugs became my escape: I began to use the product I was selling. I looked in the mirror one morning and realized I was addicted. My parents tried to get me back on track. Judges and POs tried to get me back on track. I tried to focus on my kids, and thought of not being there for them. Years passed. Nothing worked.
In 1999, I was shot. I wasn’t in the wrong place at the wrong time. It had gotten to the point where I would pick up a gun and rob the dealers for drugs. An associate of mine—a guy I called a “friend”—set me up to be shot. I stayed in a coma for more than a month and a half. I had to learn how to walk again, how to talk again. But even after going through all of that, I couldn’t get past my addiction.
My mother and father passed away and left me and my siblings $33,000 each. I was dead broke within two months. I did some good things: I paid off a good chunk of child support and helped my kids in other ways. But the drugs still had me.
I bumped into a friend who I hadn’t seen in a while. I asked him, “Hey, have you been locked up?” He told me he hadn’t; he had gone to a program called The Healing Place in Richmond. And he looked real good. He said, “I can get you the same help—and it’s totally free.” I didn’t want to hear this. I was just trying to get to the nearest place to get a score, so I asked him for a ride. He said, “Sure, I’ll drop you off if you’ll listen to what I have to say along the way.” What he said stuck with me.
For every addict—whatever the substance—there comes a point when the vice just doesn’t cut it. We call that point, “a moment of clarity.” I started hearing a voice telling me, “You can do something better with your life.” I fought it. I thought, “Maybe if I can just get higher, the voice will go away.” But it wouldn’t go away. I called my family and told them, “I’m done. I’m going to get help.”
My friend took me to Richmond and I went to my first class at The Healing Place. I listened to people who had been down the same road as me, with the same struggles. But they were sitting up straight, smiling. I hadn’t smiled in years. There was nothing to smile about. I was disconnected from my family. Physically, mentally, psychologically, I was a mess. All the potential that I had growing up, all these dreams, were just gone.
I began to learn about my disease—about addiction, and what made me tick. I learned about accountability, how to stop blaming the system, my mother, my father, and everybody around me. I learned that we all have struggles, and those struggles are harder for some than for others. But we all have a choice—we can do the next right thing, or the next wrong thing. Through Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, I learned to stay clean one day at a time.
But some of my greatest struggle was still to come. August 26 is my older brother’s birthday. He called me that day in 2009. I said, “Hey, man, I’m sorry I forgot your birthday—I meant to give you a call.” He was quiet. “No, I didn’t call you for that,” he said. “Your son was killed today.” My son was 16 years old. That was the hardest moment of my life.
I went to Tidewater to make arrangements for my son’s funeral. He had no insurance and the family had no money, so we had to hold a car wash to raise funds for his coffin and headstone. It was real tough. But The Healing Place gave me all the support I needed. They donated food for the wake, and there were guys from the program who came down to Portsmouth to support me while I was there.
At that point, I made a decision, and it was a decision I made with God: No other parent should bury their child. I have to help others make sure this doesn’t happen to them.
I finished the program at The Healing Place. I thought I would go get an ordinary job; I had worked as a cook before all of this, and figured I would do it again. But I had a chance to work for another nonprofit organization, Boaz & Ruth, doing service work through AmeriCorps. I wanted to give back.
In AmeriCorps, you’re eligible for an education grant if you have a GED or high school diploma. I hadn’t earned either one and worried that I was too old to go back to school; I thought I wouldn’t do well. But I enrolled in GED classes at Boaz & Ruth, taking a bus two hours each way to get from home to school. I never missed a class and never missed an assignment. And I was able to earn a perfect score on some parts of the GED exam.
Next, I thought about going to college, but again figured school wasn’t for me—it was for much younger folks. But a friend of mine at The Healing Place encouraged me. “I’m planning to go back to college,” he told me, “and if I sign up for class, you should sign up for class.” I agreed. I took the entrance exam, scored pretty well, and started college. My first semester, I earned all As and made the Dean’s List. I’m asking, “God, is this for real?”
Now, I’m working on the final leg of my Associate’s degree in Business Management. And I’m looking to go another year and a half to get a Bachelor’s degree. From there, I want to step into a Master’s degree program—and then ride until the wheels fall off.
On Saturday, I took my niece to dinner near VCU, and we came across a man on the street asking for five dollars. Before I gave him the money, I gave him information about where he could go to get help. He began to break down and cry. “No one ever told me how to get help,” he said. I told him, “There’s help out here; you just have to ask the right questions.” We talked about his situation and I found some familiar problems in his way of thinking. He was blaming his circumstances on everyone but him. I explained that the first thing he needs to do is take responsibility for his choices. He cried in my arms. I urged him, “Call me, I’ll help you to get the help you need—and it won’t cost you anything but the willingness to change. You can’t change overnight. But you can change.”
My only job is to be of maximum service to my fellow man and woman. I have been working at CARITAS for five years. Could I go to another job and make more money? Yes. But there is no other job that would be more fulfilling. God continues to open doors for me—and countless others around me. I have seen so many guys come in, heads down, with no hope—and then they grow beyond anyone’s belief. So I’m here every morning by 7 o'clock, doing what I love to do—and that's helping people. People believe in us, so I don’t take it for granted.
This world is built on second chances and third chances and fourth chances. Often we don’t recognize that, because the person who has been to jail or addicted may not look like us, may not come from the same background. But all sorts of folks get second chances. Why shouldn’t those second and third chances be extended to those who have struggled with drugs? Everybody needs grace and mercy. Everybody has done something they wish they could take back. Give someone a second chance, a third chance, a fourth chance, and I guarantee you they will work harder than the person you give a first chance.
— interviewed September 6, 2016
Reporter, Richmond Times-Dispatch
Daughter and mother
Veteran and mother of two
Procurement Manager, CARITAS
Assistant Manager, Clothes Closet
Attorney, Virginia Poverty Law Center
Director of Access to Legal Services
President, Muslim Chaplain Services
Director, Carrico Center at UR Law
Case Manager, VA Supportive Housing