What if newborns came out of the womb talking?
What do you think they would say?
Or what about guys in the movies—the ones on their deathbed who hand a mysterious treasure to the hero? And when the hero asks what he’s supposed to do with it, the dying guy rasps, “You’ll know when the time is right.”
How does he know when the time is right?
Sean Flowers thinks about these things. At 23, just graduated from Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU), he’s thinking fast and talking about talking—specifically, knowing what to say, when and where. An avowed news junkie, he says he can talk all day. It’s a gift he developed early in life—a gift that lifted him into college from a so-so high school career and into roles as senior class president and a resident adviser at JCSU.
But before all that, in what Sean calls “a whole other life,” talking got him in trouble. He wanted nothing more than to be cool, and as young as 13 he aspired to rise through the ranks of people he admired—“thugs and gangsters” in the North End neighborhood where he lived in Goldsboro. With no father around, and his mother working 12-hour night shifts as a Department of Correction sergeant, he ran the streets as he pleased. He was a smooth talker and entertainer, able to hold his own with older guys and push into ever higher circles of delinquency to get the respect he wanted.
Needless to say, his middle school years were rough. He fought, mouthed off and ended up in an alternative school by 7th grade–the first of two times that would happen. By 8th grade, he was on intensive probation for stealing a bag of pizzas from a delivery man. He repeatedly violated probation, even spending a couple of nights in the Pitt County Detention Center after skipping 9th-grade classes for two months straight. A judge finally said enough when Sean admitted to smoking marijuana in April 2005. This time, at age 15, he was off to Methodist Home for Children’s Wayne County multipurpose home. The four months he spent there opened his eyes to a future he had not yet considered—one in which the “role” he’d chosen for himself, with all the swagger and trappings of thuggery, could be discarded. He could toss it off and start again.
Seven years later, in 2012, Sean went back to the Wayne home—this time as a resident counselor intern for his senior project at JCSU. The proudest day of his collegiate career, he says, was when MHC Vice President of Operations Ken Perry came to Charlotte to watch him present his senior project to faculty. “I worked so hard on that project and it felt good to be able to present what I know about the model of care, to execute under pressure,” he says. Sean works now as a project assistant at the Family Resource Center of Raleigh. His gift of gab—of connecting easily and relating to people—is an asset as he pursues a career helping at-risk kids. He talks about changing his life and finding the way to his “ideal self.”
Describe yourself as you came to Methodist Home for Children.
Before Methodist Home, when I would get in trouble, I’d go to see counselors and therapists and I’d just tell them whatever they wanted to hear. I’d snow everybody. So when I came to the Wayne County multipurpose home, I talked to some nice people and thought, “I’m going to do it again.” That’s pretty much how it was for the first two or three weeks. Then I learned something about direct responsibility. It was a small thing but it had a big impact on me. Our resident counselors would take us grocery shopping every week. We’d all get in this big blue van and ride up to Sam’s, and they would get us our treats [as rewards for good behavior] for the points system.
Well, there’s no trunk in the van, so on this one trip they got Starbursts and put them under our seats in the back, and as soon as we left the parking lot, we got into the boxes and passed them around. Everybody took some. Some of the older kids in the van said, “Hey man, you know you’re not going to get into trouble. Just do it.” And I did. I got into trouble. It wasn’t so severe, but it was bad enough to make me look up and realize that these people in this home—these other youth—they weren’t about me. So why feel the need to be about them? Funny it took that situation to do it, but I started caring that when I do something, I take the heat.
You’d been in trouble before. You hadn’t learned that lesson?
Even in the midst of all the legal trouble—people saying, “You did this, you did this, you did this”—when you’re a juvenile in juvenile court, all that stuff goes over your head. You hear professionals telling you what you did wrong. You hear things like “felonious larceny” and you’re like, “I didn’t do nothing but steal some pizza, man. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
That’s how you feel. Then you hear your sentencing, you hear your punishment. But it never really touches you. Everything up until Methodist Home had been a badge of honor. I was a child in the legal system but as per my peer group and my surroundings at the time, I was the man. So to feel this was wrong or think, “Dang, I messed up”—I hadn’t messed up. This was a stepping stone to greatness. It just doesn’t touch you because this is how it’s supposed to go. But it was the Starbursts that let me know, “Hey man, you really got to be about yourself.”
So how did you use that epiphany?
I realized that the only thing I could control in the situation was myself. I focused on me and what I had to do to get out of there. When I’d wake up and see that I needed to earn 10 signatures that day with greeting skills, I’d say to myself, “I guess I’ll be shaking some hands today. I guess I’ll be saying some ‘good mornings’ today.” It was almost like a workout or taking a test, but then I started liking it and doing it for real. The practice began to mold me. That’s when I started to see that I could change. Right now, if I wanted to shed all of this and quit my job, turn to a life of crime, I know I could. I could change again. Of course, I won’t. But I saw for the first time that I could change my behavior and I could change the way other people saw me. I started to care about those things.
I can remember getting an Esquire magazine with some points I’d earned. It was the 2005 best-dressed issue with [rapper/producer] Pharrell Williams, so I was looking at his pictures and I was like, “Man, look at his clothes. I love them. What is that? He’s got on these sweaters. He’s like Bill Cosby!” It was my only magazine, so I looked at it all the time and I started to think. What did I want to look like? What did I want to act like? After that, whenever I’d get money from home, I’d try to get myself together more. The staff would help, too. I’d be the only person in the home dressed. I like to look nice. That changed. So I grew a lot over those four months. I practiced these new behaviors they were teaching and I learned how to present myself.
What happened when you left the home?
When I got out of Methodist Home I was on probation for another six months. But I came out to a brand-new school, to brand-new people, with a brand-new outlook. It was like someone hit the master reset. You know how there’s a reset button on your phone and you can just reset everything? Somebody sent me back to factory default. It really worked.
For one thing, I went to Southern Wayne High School, and it was actually cool then to be smart. In my culture it had always been a thing to hide how smart you were. For some reason, the smarter you were the more vulnerable you were to attack and ridicule. So things just clicked for me. There was no need to revisit my old life. Now it’s something to look at. It’s like a chapter in a book. I can look back and say, “I remember when I was doing this and I looked like that. Oh man that’s just crazy.”
But to be honest with you, I didn’t know I was going to college until the second semester of my senior year. I thought high school was the extent of my education. I had no clue. Then I noticed that everybody else was going to college. They were filling out applications and saying, “I’m going here. I just got this acceptance letter.” I was like, “I need to do some Googling. Let me look this up.”
How did you reconnect with MethodistHome for Children?
Back when I was still in the Wayne home, I went to a meeting with juvenile justice officials and talked about how Methodist Home had helped me. Some of my comments were printed in Spotlight [Fall 2005], and so I kept that
issue. It just happens that, adjacent to my story was another one, something like “Methodist Home program helps teen pursue college dreams,” and I remembered it. When I was accepted to Johnson C. Smith, I went back and re-read that article [about the Hackley Education and Learning Program] and decided I needed to apply. And so I did.
Well, college costs a lot, and this was a private college, so I had to get loans and financial aid, plus a job. Methodist Home helped me out with money for tuition, books and groceries. I also got a mentor—someone on staff who would monitor my grades and check in with me: “Are you being good? Do you need any help?” Then, every summer, I’d come to Raleigh for the HELP luncheon. Vic Hackley [program namesake and former MHC board chair] meets privately with all the HELP students—it’s just a group of us kicking it with Vic—and I did that my junior and senior years. It’s really uplifting. Vic Hackley is like the granddaddy in chief at Methodist Home. I can say, “Man, I stubbed my toe today.” Well, Vic Hackley has got a story about that. He knows somebody who stubbed his toe—lost it, got it back, made it across the river—and he’s going to drop some wisdom on you. He’s been everywhere. In the military. He ran collegiate institutions. Now I get to sit across the table and talk to him. And the great thing about Vic is that I’m not talking to a position. I’m actually talking to Vic, the man.
How did you get an internship at MHC?
In school, everybody was scared about what to do for a living, but I didn’t have a problem with that. They say go with what you know, so I built my senior project around an internship at the Wayne County multipurpose home. The work was abstract—it was about skill curriculum and implementation—and that made it hard to present as a project. I remember my adviser asking, “What’s your goal?” I said, “To get employment.” She said, “That’s your goal?” I said, “Yes.” But this is the work I want to do, and I’m glad I did that internship.
I’m familiar with Methodist Home in a way that most people are not. When I look at children’s behavior I can see both sides of it. I can look at a kid and say, “Why did you do that?” But I know why he did that. When I was his age, being able to talk to people, being charming—these were things I knew. These were things I had sharpened for a life of delinquency. Then I learned at Methodist Home how to take these skills and translate them for other purposes.
So now I can see a kid who, say, got caught selling drugs to make money for food or clothes in a household that can’t afford them. He was using a skill set; he just wasn’t using it right. In letting these kids know I’ve been through this home [as a repeat juvenile offender], that opened them up. I could tell them, “You know, you actually have to cut the B.S. You have to be honest. You have got to do right. Get back in school. What they’re doing here, take heed.”
What’s life like now?
My whole life, I’ve known I wanted to be somebody and be something. I just never knew how. Now I’m starting to get this ideal self in mind, but how do I self-actualize? How do I create the road to get from me to him? Sometimes, you know, we’ll go through a bad situation and say, “Whew. I got through that,” and forget about it. I want to look at my situation and ask what’s wrong with right now that can be better tomorrow? This is something that Mr. Perry talks to me about all the time: You have to be able to reframe. Change how you’re looking at a situation. I look at it like I’m riding on a train. When the train’s in motion I can’t just jump off. I have to get off at the station—at my stop. I have to wait my turn. This is my track, my lane so to speak, and it comes with its own set of opportunities and problems and work-throughs.
What motivates you?
At last year’s HELP luncheon, I stood up and talked about college, what I wanted to do next. At the end, a kid came over from the Macon County multipurpose home and shook my hand. He said, “I heard what you said. I like that.” And I said, “That was me just telling you what you really needed to hear.”
Now I’m in Raleigh and I ride the bus to work, and one day at the bus station a guy walked over and tapped me on the shoulder. He says, “Hey man, you from Methodist Home?” It was the same guy from the HELP luncheon. He’s getting his GED—I think he’s got three more tests to go—and he’s good. We had a good conversation, and I thought, this is it. This is what I said I wanted to happen. This kid is standing here telling me about his progress, and I’m telling him about my progress. A year and some change later, that’s crazy, right?
Also, with my mother, we’ve been through some things. To look back and understand there were a lot of points when she could have just given up. The fact that she stuck around to see things get great—not get good, but to
see things get great—I like that. It feels good to call her and tell her what’s positive right now. It feels good when she calls me on her way to work and I’m getting off work. It feels good to tell her about my day. It validates her struggle, letting her see me as a positive man and say it was worth it. Those doubts, those times when she was saying, “I don’t know how I can make this happen, I don’t know how I can make this work.”
Well, it worked. It validates a lot of what I went through. I won’t say it made it worth it, but it proved why I am here. Now I want to take what worked—what I’ve lived and what I’ve learned—and help other kids. To be that man who’s helping to heal a problem that he once was a part of. That’s what I want.