by Saeed S., 17
Some stories are so grippingly breathtaking that we’d reserve them for movies or novels. And yet, they happened all the same; these stories contain an underlying truth that builds our communities and defines our histories. Mr. Wallace Woods, the current building and grounds warehouse manager for Lunch Break, shows us what it truly means to live despite life—to exist despite existence.
Mr. Woods grew up impoverished in a household split between five growing boys and one fighting mother.
“I was 16 years old, my older brother was 17, and one day we heard our mom crying,” Woods recalls, “and I knew why she was crying—everybody in the house had eaten, for the past two days, besides her. ”
Henceforth, the older brothers decided to fend for themselves, and as desperation truly stuck, they soon began dealing.
“We’d get some weed and roll ‘em up into joints. Back then, you’d sell a joint for a dollar,” so that’s what they did.
The supply would arrive a half ounce at a time, and sure he knew it was wrong, and his mother wasn’t too happy about it either, but when you’re fighting to survive, morality finds itself deprioritized. I implore you to save all judgment until you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, if it’s coming at all.
Eventually, Woods and his brother sat their mother down and alleviated her of the pressure she’d come to live with.
“You ain’t gotta worry about me. I gotta worry about my brother and me. You just take care of the little ones,” he told her.
They weren’t lying either. The money was good, and soon their life was, or so they thought.
As the drug world evolved, marijuana became second to an influx of South American opium. At the height of his drug dealing career, Woods felt untouchable. He’d enter the clubs with all eyes on him, each tinged with envy and desires. This success, however, wouldn’t last long.
“It ain’t the drugs that catch you first. It’s the limelight being a drug dealer.” Everyone knows your name, especially those you wish didn’t. The drugs come next. “First, you’re feeling okay about yourself, invincible,” but he wished he’d listened to Elvira Hancock from the movie Scarface when she said, “Don’t get high on your own supply.”
Woods was 22 years old when the courts first sent him to jail. He was sentenced to 15 years in jail and was not eligible for parole until he had served six years. Woods never saw this change coming. He remembers telling one of the cops that he’d never been in trouble when they replied, “you’ve always been doing trouble; you’ve just never been caught.”
“Jail doesn’t make you a better person,” Woods recalls being told to call a certain number the second he got out of jail, and that’s what he did. Woods did not experience rehabilitation while incarcerated. The prison was no more than a brainstorming site with others who had committed the same crimes. Woods got better while in jail but better at all the wrong things. Woods began a long cycle of being released and jailed.
His wife, whom he met when she was 16, and he was 19, worked at one of the county jails.
“Sometimes they’d send me to where she was. She’d see my name on a list and look at me behind bars. ‘Why you gotta come here? Fine, go to jail, but not this one.’ [As I went in and out of jail], she wouldn’t let me in the house anymore.”
Eventually, Woods no longer enjoyed hustling, he was tired of it, but it was all he knew how to do. His 20s and 30s went by in a blur of incarceration and drug dealing, which left Woods homeless. Once again, like all those years ago, a fight to survive ensued. That was when, swallowing his pride, Woods approached Lunch Break, a soup kitchen at the time, and forever changed his life.
Finally out of prison and trying to get out of the drug business, Mr. Woods walked by Lunch Break from time to time and saw the building as a place of salvation but could not bring himself to venture inside. He could not imagine himself in a soup kitchen. For weeks he passed Lunch Break, walking back and forth, until one day, he felt the strength to walk through the doors and ask for help.
“I called my wife and told her, and she just started crying.” His wife had begged him to seek support for a very long time.
Woods continued to visit Lunch Break and soon started volunteer work. He’d do anything he could, filling his days loading trucks or whatever job they offered him. It wasn’t easy, and he’d return to the shelter exhausted, “I was tired. But this time, it felt good to be tired of something worth it, something good.”
For the first time in so long, Woods felt like he had a purpose. Every morning, he’d wake up and volunteer to go “back and unload the truck [and] help with the food downstairs.” He felt renewed and productive.
As time passed, Woods’ relationship with Lunch Break strengthened, and they offered him a job. He remembers walking upstairs prepared to show his criminal record and lose any chances of a normal life. What he did not realize, however, is that Lunch Break has founded itself on the concept of second chances. Woods walked up to show the manager his record; however, she’d already known about it before offering him the job. If anything, this meeting was just a formality.
“I got the job and just went downstairs and cried,” he remembers.
Lunch Break, dedicated to serving its community and supporting its members, gave Woods the opportunity at the success he’d missed long ago. Lunch Break dedicates itself to being the guardian people need in their lives but never had.
Now, Woods loves his job. He gets to meet people, learn their stories and share his own. People relate to him, admire him, and look at him as proof there is a future and that success is possible! Lunch Break took a chance hiring Woods, and he took an equally intimating chance walking in and asking for help. And yet, everything worked out, and with Lunch Break’s guidance, Woods rebuilt his life. When Woods had nobody, Lunch Break believed in him despite his faults. They have shown the world that nobody is ever a “lost cause” and that hope can lead to redemption. Through the help of Lunch Break, Woods regained his sense of self. He feels “like a man again.”
Within a decade, Woods went from homeless to a keynote speaker at school events … and 13 years clean! Through a small but mighty soup kitchen in Red Bank, New Jersey, Mr. Wallace Woods transformed and continues to light a pathway for many to follow.
“I don’t care who knows my story as long as it helps somebody.”
It’s pretty safe to say his story most certainly has.