By Aaron Blevins, 12/06/2012
Delancey Street offers a second chance
The story of the Delancey Street Foundation is moving — both for the heart and in terms of the actual act of transporting items from one residence to another.
The foundation offers a re-education program for former substance abusers and ex-convicts whereby participants are put to work in exchange for residency and services at its various locations. Throughout the year, it operates a catering company and a moving company. However, in the winter, many residents exchange trays and dollies for chainsaws and holiday cheer.
For almost 20 years, residents in the foundation’s Los Angeles location have sold Christmas trees and decorated homes and businesses during the holidays. It’s another effort to bring in revenue for the foundation, which receives no government funding and operates at no cost to the residents.
“It’s amazing,” said Dave Durocher, who manages Delancey Street’s L.A. facility. “We’ve helped tens of thousands of people change the direction of their lives.”
He said the foundation has six tree lots in the Los Angeles area: Pasadena, Culver City, Santa Monica, Los Feliz, Brentwood and on Wilshire Boulevard near Rossmore Avenue. It also provides large-scale decorating for businesses and homes in the area.
The majority of the workers have been substance abusers or spent time in prison, but the tree handlers were all smiles at the Wilshire location on Tuesday. Clarence Taylor, a six-year Delancey Street resident, was running the show. He said the workers have been so busy that they have to squeeze lunch in when they can.
“Business has been awesome,” Taylor said.
A veteran of the facility on Vermont Avenue, he has been in and out of prison throughout his life — until the looming possibility of serving an 18-year sentence prompted him to contact the foundation. He simply wanted to do the two years required at Delancey Street and go about his business. Four years later, he’s still happily working for the foundation.
“It’s been awesome. I get chills just thinking about the opportunity to be living a normal, successful, just a regular, consistent life,” Taylor said.
Delancey Street requires that residents commit to two years and pursue their GED, while learning at least three marketable job skills. The L.A. location has programs for culinary arts, automotive, welding, moving, corporate development, retail woodworking, retail sales, legal and accounting.
The organization operates like a college, and Taylor is attending general education courses at Los Angeles Community College. Meanwhile, he has siblings serving time in state prison.
“Never in my life — nobody in my family has been to college,” Taylor said. “I’ve finally broke the cycle.”
He said the foundation teaches residents to be accountable, responsible and honest. The crews get up in the morning for work — “like normal people” — and work hard at the various tasks they are assigned, Taylor said.
And it’s opened doors for him. Taylor said he has had dinner with Sheriff Lee Baca and has been able to travel for the first time in his life, going to cities like Chicago, Sacramento and New York. Delancey Street interviews its applicants in jails and prisons, and he has been able to be on the other side of the table as well.
“Now, the same jails that I came out of, I’m going in there and interviewing people,” Taylor said. “I can’t believe they let me in there, and go right out the front door.”
Long Beach native James Green, 36, has not been in the program as long, but also praised its work. He is an estimator and crew boss for the moving company, but he and several residents stopped by the tree lot to help after their moving jobs were completed.
“It’s been an amazing experience,” Green, a former gang member, said. “I can’t put into words how much it has helped me and enlightened me on things in life that I kind of took for granted and didn’t appreciate.”
He was paroled before he sought the foundation’s help in re-acclimating him into society. Green said serving time can make a person jaded, but Delancey Street has helped him begin to develop care and compassion.
Taylor and Durocher have been mentors for him. Durocher has also been in and out of prison, and he was facing a 22-year sentence when he joined the program seven years ago. He said the foundation’s president, Mimi Silbert, is the only person in the organization who is not a resident.
“The beautiful thing is she has dedicated her life to helping people who were incapable of helping themselves,” Durocher said. “Our president has found a way to turn the problem into the solution. That is us.”
Green said he is pleased to be part of the foundation, and he knows there are people in a jail cell who yearn to be in the same position. He said the foundation tries to get younger residents to understand that.
“You don’t have to do a [lot] of time,” Green said. “You can appreciate what you have now instead of having to go do that. I did it for you. I can tell you from my own experience. …That’s what it’s all about. Despite all the wrong we’ve done to society, now we want to do some right. That’s how I feel. Now it’s time to give back for all the wrongdoings that I’ve done. I got a lot of making up [to do].”
He said he plans to use the services and lessons offered by the foundation as best he can.
“Why would I take it for granted? I can’t,” Green said. “It’s a good thing, man.”
The Delancey Street Foundation has approximately 800 residents nationwide, with 190 in the Los Angeles facility. Its headquarters is in San Francisco, and it has offices in New York, New Mexico and North Carolina.
For information, call (323)662-4888, or visit www.delanceystreetfoundation.org.