Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Rags to Riches

When I was 14 years old I remember asking my mother for money so I could go to the movies with my friends. She looked at me and with a smile she said, “What do I look like, a bank?” It was her way of teaching me the importance of working for the things you want in life. When I responded that I was only 14 and not legally allowed to work yet, she handed me a rag and told me I was now hired to clean the windows in the house. I made $10 and went to the movies. The popcorn that day was even more delicious because I felt the satisfaction of earning it.

Years later I was living in the Bronx while attending college at Fordham University. The Bronx was not the safest neighborhood, and one day I overheard a guy talking about how hard it was for him to find a job. He said he was just out of prison and no one wanted to hire him. I made a suggestion that if he couldn’t find a job maybe he could create one. He looked at me as if I should mind my own business. That’s exactly what I decided to do when I made him an offer.

I proposed we form a partnership. I asked him to look up and down the street at all the awnings on top of the local stores. They were filthy and no one was cleaning them. “How long do you think it would take you to clean one of these awnings?” I asked. After some consideration he said, “About an hour.” I then walked into one of the stores and offered to clean their awning for $50. To my surprise, the owner said yes. I asked for a $20 deposit and told him the job would start in about an hour. I walked into ten more stores and signed up seven more customers. I bought a ladder, a hose, a bucket, some soap, and rags.

At the end of the day we had washed eight awnings and after deducting the cost of supplies we each earned $150. The next day we repeated the process and someone asked if we cleaned windows. Flashback to my mom handing me a rag when I was 14 and I immediately said, “Of course we clean windows.” The man was a manager of an old run-down hotel. He asked for a price to clean 1,000 windows, but emphasized that we would have to clean them in one day. I figured we would need 20 workers cleaning 50 windows each. We charged $5 a window and made a profit of $3,000. The funny thing was that all the workers were also people who had recently been released from prison, and none of them could find a job…until that day.

Twenty years later on a recent trip to San Francisco I went into a cafĂ© for breakfast. While I waited for my order I read a newspaper article about the restaurant. The headline was “Serving Time,” and the article began, “A bank robber is cooking the chicken, a jewel thief is refilling the water glasses, and a waiter is discussing his time in prison…which waiter, all of them.” It turns out that the restaurant is completely staffed and operated by ex-convicts.

Mimi Silbert started the Delancey Street Foundation with a $1,000 loan. Her mission was to revolutionize the way prisoners are rehabilitated. She believed that most rehabilitation centers coddle prisoners and she decided to do the opposite. In exchange for having their basic needs met (shelter, clothes, and food), each convict works hard in a business. They learn life and business skills, and combined with some needed therapy they embark on an amazing second chance. 14,000 former prisoners have gone through the program. 10,000 have gone on to earn a high school equivalency diploma and 1,000 went on to college. Equally as impressive is that 80% avoid going back to jail.

I wonder how many of us are walking around in our own mental prison. We may not be locked up physically, but are we allowing our thoughts to roam free? If we limit our dreams because we’ve failed before then we are sentencing ourselves to a life without parole. It’s time to dream again and perhaps bigger than ever. Give yourself a second chance. You’re the judge and the jury. How about a lifetime sentence of dreaming big? Your rags to riches story may only be one window cleaning away.

Until next week…

Live Your Dreams

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