A Clean Break | Fall 2012 Spotlight | photo by Chuck Beckley |

UPDATE: De’Quan Nelms started fall classes at Craven Community College in September 2012 with financial assistance from Methodist Home for Children’s Hackley Education and Learning Program (HELP). |

At age 13, De’Quan Nelms was building a reputation in Rocky Mount as “Trouble,” the son of “Chaos.” People were afraid of him, like they’d feared his father before he vanished into prison, and it felt like respect. It felt powerful.

By age 17, De’Quan was sitting in the Edgecombe County Youth Development Center (YDC) and thinking about escape. Not from youth prison, where he was serving eight months for probation violation, but escape from the life he’d built back home. It was all he’d known since joining a gang and getting his first probation at 13, and he realized he couldn’t go back if he wanted to live better. “I just kept thinking: How to get away? How am I going to do this?”

Getting away wouldn’t be easy, and it would require more than a change of address. It would require a change of De’Quan, whose teenage years of hard living are documented all over his face, arms and years’ worth of court records. The scar over his left eye? From gang initiation. The scar on his left arm? Grazed by a bullet. The record? A variety of offenses, including a concealed weapon charge, larceny, possession of drug paraphernalia, destruction of property and probation violations.

De’Quan entered the YDC in February 2011 feeling hopeless and stuck, he says, “like my life was coming to an end slowly but surely.” To his surprise, confinement was a gift of time to collect himself and to work with counselors skilled in redirecting troubled teens.

In March 2011, he became a father and, for the first time in his life, he felt accountable to someone other than himself. “I knew something’s got to give.”

The escape De’Quan wanted so badly—a chance to break clean—presented itself as his discharge date drew closer. A YDC counselor told him about a new residential program run by Methodist Home for Children and the N.C. Division of Juvenile Justice to serve teenage males who cannot or should not return home after a period of confinement. In some cases, the boys may not have a home anymore or their home may be unsafe. Or, in cases like De’Quan’s, home may be a part of the problem. In any case, the teens need a secure place to stay while they get a job, finish school and practice skills to live independently and lawfully.

De’Quan started the Craven Transitional Living Program in October 2011 and adapted to the discipline and structure. He emerged as a leader in the home, and his thoughts turned from “What now?” to “I can do it.” He earned his GED and worked double shifts at McDonald’s to save money for an apartment. “I know I can do it so I’m going to do it,” he says. “I want to change. I want to change my life but I have to change myself first.”

And he has. In the course of a year, Craven program manager Kristen Tettemer has seen De’Quan wrestle with school and work, family issues and decision making. Through it all, she says, he has persevered and proven himself to be hardworking and determined.

“De’Quan is resilient, and we are all very proud of him at the home. We can’t wait to see what he chooses to challenge himself with in the future.”

At age 18, De’Quan took a first step into that reimagined future in July when he graduated from the Craven program. He moved into his own 900-square-foot apartment in New Bern and prepared to start fall semester classes at Craven Community College, supported in part by MHC’s Hackley Education and Learning Program. In those first few weeks away, Tettemer says, he “called home” a lot to ask for advice or help—how to sign up for internet or get the best deal on a purchase—but he’s getting the hang of independent living.

His aspirations include a four-year degree, at least, and a career in social work—perhaps helping kids like himself. At various points in his youth, he says, people tried to help him. Mentors would pick him up and talk to him, but he never listened—maybe because he was stubborn, he says, or maybe because he couldn’t relate. “I had the attitude of what are you talking about? Most of the time I wouldn’t even talk to them. I’d just sit there. I was like, what’s the point of me talking to you? What can you change?”

That’s why he wants to get a college education and use it to make a difference. He can tell teens firsthand what it’s like to walk away from trouble, and maybe they’ll listen. “After this experience, I want to take psychology and sociology. I feel I like have a voice and I have words for kids when I get older that they need to hear.”

So for now, what does it feel like to walk away?

First, De’Quan says, his mother and brothers are proud of him and that feels good. One day, too, his daughter will be able to look up to him.

Second, the stress of his old life is gone. “I feel better about myself. I haven’t done anything wrong. I have a job and I get paid. I get paid. I get paid. I have a job. I love the life I’m living right now.”