Thriv­ing on the farm

Former drug dealer finds hope, be­long­ing

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - SARAH FALLIN sfallin@somd­news.com

At the age of 13, Rico Nel­son of Leonard­town started sell­ing drugs to pay the elec­tric bill. As the sec­ond-youngest of five boys, he joined his par­ents in an un­sta­ble and un­suit­able life­style for a child: his mother was an ad­dict, his fa­ther an al­co­holic.

“It wasn’t some­thing I wanted to do. … It was a

way to pro­vide,” Nel­son said.

But now, with a grant from the very same sys­tem that was in charge of keep­ing him in jail mul­ti­ple times for drug-re­lated in­frac- tions, Nel­son is work- ing full time at Farm­ing 4 Hunger at Seren­ity Farm in Bene­dict. The Mary­land De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tions has al- lot­ted him a $35,000 grant to be em­ployed there for one year. He’s now one of two full-time em­ploy­ees at Farm­ing 4 Hunger.

Bernie Fowler Jr., founder of Farm­ing 4 Hunger, a non­profit that grows fresh food for those in need, said he re­al­ized early on in the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s his­tory that help was needed with har­vest­ing, so he formed a re­la­tion­ship with the De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tions and be­gan hav­ing in­mates at South­ern Mary­land Pre-Re­lease in Char- lotte Hall come to the farm to help.

“Then I started re­al­iz­ing this is a man, a per­son­al­ity, whose needs aren’t be­ing met, and re­la­tion­ships were formed,” Fowler said.

Those in the pre-re­lease pro­gram could be sev­eral years out from fin­ish­ing their sen­tences and the pro­gram is meant to make the tran­si­tion from in­car­cer­a­tion back into the world eas­ier. But the re­al­ity is that when the farm ini­tially in the pre-re­lease pro­gram.

“We’ve cre­ated fam­ily, so they can call us,” Fowler said.

Nel­son has now been out of prison for a year and a half. Orig­i­nally from Charles County, his tu­mul­tuous child­hood meant he went to five dif­fer­ent ele­men­tary schools: two in St. Mary’s County and three in Charles.

“My mother was ad­dicted real bad. She chose drugs over her kids,” Nel­son said.

After mul­ti­ple run-ins with the law and sev­eral stints in jail, Nel­son would re­turn to sell­ing drugs. He said he could ei­ther go to jail for not pay­ing child sup­port or sell drugs to pay child sup­port and risk go­ing to jail again. In April 2015, while he was at South­ern Mary­land Pre-Re­lease, he was given the op­por­tu­nity to work at Seren­ity Farm.

At the farm, Nel­son does a bit of ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing green­house work. Fowler said he’s par­tic­u­larly handy with me­chan­i­cal work.

“The first day I came here, it was love,” Nel­son said, beam­ing. In­stead of hand­shakes, there were hugs. He got to ex­pe­ri­ence the love of fam­ily for the first time. He of­fi­cially ended his time in pre-re­lease Dec. 23 and now lives in Leonard­town while work­ing on the farm full time.

“We’re num­bers in there. … But here I be­came a man,” Nel­son said. they’re re­leased, the peo­ple are each given $50 and sent on their way, Fowler said.

For ev­ery 30 days those in the pre-re­lease pro­gram work at Farm- ing 4 Hunger, their sen­tences are re­duced by 10 days. At Farm- ing 4 Hunger, they get min­i­mal pay, which is cov­ered by the state. But it’s not just a job to pass the time. Farm­ing 4 Hunger has turned it into a more com­pre­hen- sive way to help those in the pre-re­lease pro­gram bet­ter tran­si­tion when their sen­tences are com­pleted.

Since 2013, when Farm­ing 4 Hunger first started its re­la­tion­ship with the De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tions, 88 men have come to work at the farm. Only one has gone back to jail. While work­ing on the farm, the men gain some trans­fer­able skills like be­ing able to work the ma­chin­ery, in­clud­ing lawn­mow­ers.

In Novem­ber, Farm- ing 4 Hunger started its Star Cit­i­zen Pro­gram, which is a three-day ro­ta­tion for the men. Ev­ery three days, they ro­tate work­ing the fields, work­ing in the back end while load­ing trucks and such and see­ing a pro­fes­sional life coach. The life coach­ing is es­pe­cially im­por­tant for the men to ad­dress past hurts. Leav­ing the past un­ad­dressed can lead to re­cidi­vism, Fowler said.

Nel­son said he got help with get­ting his driver’s li­cense and more while work­ing on

STAFF PHOTO BY SARAH FALLIN

With the help of Farm­ing 4 Hunger, Rico Nel­son, a former drug dealer, has turned his life around and now works for the or­ga­ni­za­tion full time.

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