This story is the first in HuffPost Impact's 12 Days, 12 Cities, 12 Families series, highlighting Americans who have persevered to overcome incredible challenges and the nonprofits that helped change their lives. Check back tomorrow for the continuation of this series.
After serving two and a half years in jail for possession, Norris Cooper had a decision to make. It was December of last year, Christmas was right around the corner, and all Cooper wanted to do was go home and celebrate the holiday with his family. But coming home also meant going back to his old westside Chicago neighborhood, his old friends and his old ways.
"I had to make the decision to do something I had never done before," the 48-year-old explained. "Change my lifestyle, do something different that would work this time."
It had been a long time since Cooper had ruled his own life. First, his drug addiction had taken him over and set the tempo for an increasingly strained relationship with his family. Then, in jail, his daily life was dictated by guards and routine. He'd had enough time to atone for his crimes, to make the decision to return home a changed man. But part of him wasn't sure if he was any different, or if he could be, without help.
A Guiding Hand And Temporary Home
Before leaving prison, Cooper had been assigned a case manager from Safer Foundation. The organization has been working for more than 30 years to reduce recidivism throughout Illinois and eastern Iowa by providing formerly incarcerated people the employment and social service tools to successfully re-enter their communities. Cooper's case manager recommended that he go to a rehabilitation house instead of heading straight home to his family. "It was way on the other side of town, where I didn't know anyone, no friends or family, so I wouldn't have any distractions," he said. He made the three-month commitment to stay at the house, which meant missing another year's Christmas with the people he loved. "It was hard, but it was something I had to do. That's where I began."
Cooper speaks slowly, in a gravely drawl that lets him think about what he's going to say before he says it. So when he says, "that's where I began," he means it. For those first 30 days, within a matrix of strict curfews, daily chores, group meetings and regular check-ups with his case manager from Safer, Cooper began to remember what it was to be independent again.
"It was a start that I really needed. [The rehabilitation house] gave me a chance to be dependent on only myself. It gave me a sense that I could be responsible for my own actions. I was there with about 30 other people that I really didn't know and we had to be a part of this home together."
The commute from his wife's house in the westside to the southside was rough and Cooper wasn't allowed to leave the house for visits for his first month, so he didn't get to see his wife much when he first got out. They talked on the pay phone sometimes, but he knew that he had a lot of work to do before he would repair the damage that drugs had done to their relationship.
"Being locked up so long, you just want to get back to what you love. But you can't do that right away," Cooper said. So he built a support system from the friendships he made within the house. "We talked about the stuff that was going on inside us and talked about what we were going through. We just had to share and help one another. It helped me realize that I just had to keep doing what I'm doing because nothing happens over night. It made me feel like, 'This is the way life is. Sometimes it's a bad deal and sometimes it's the best thing ever, just don't give up.' "
Cooper continues to live by that simple methodology. Following up on Safer's job referrals, he searched for jobs that would use the landscaping skills he'd picked up from previous jobs and in prison work programs. He used his weekend visitation passes to go to his mother's house, where his wife would meet them and they'd talk and he'd try to slowly break down the wall of distrust that she had grown for him. He was glad he hadn't moved home right away. It would have been too much and ruined what was left of their 14-year marriage. These meetings, he said, were "so touching, because I only had a limited time and i had to watch the clock and cut the reunion off."
Norris Cooper with his wife Debra
Each time he boarded the bus to make his curfew across the city, he was left longing for more. But he realizes now that these brief encounters "helped me rekindle my family life again. When you change, you have to show your change and make the people around you accept you for who you are and not the person you used to be. I regained the respect of my family, my wife and my son."
Slowly But Surely On The Way Back
When his in-house program ran its course, Cooper moved into his sister's place to give himself more time to rebuild his relationship with his wife. Through his daily contact with a job coach at Safer, Cooper finally landed a landscaping job with the Chicago Christian Industrial League and began helping her sister with the rent. In June, he moved in with his mother to look after her.
"Things started to set in that I'm back, I'm getting a second chance in life and my relationship with my wife was getting better. I was starting to feel like a man again -- being home, helping around the house, buying things for myself, being independent again. Things were really looking good for me and I was starting to feel really good about my life, staying clean and working. I was being a husband, a father, a grandparent. I was enjoying life again."
Then, in November, Cooper got laid off from his job. It wasn't unexpected; a lot of landscaping jobs in the Midwest are seasonal and many of his colleagues wait out the winter on unemployment until they can pick up a job again in March. But Cooper says that after all he's come through, living off of unemployment isn't for him. So he's looking for a year-round job that will take him on his experience rather than his record.
"I have people at Safer trying to help me out and looking out for me. I'm just trying to stay positive and keep looking toward the future. I know it's rough times."
Finding a job, in Cooper's world, is a struggle to be sure, but one that pales in comparison to what he's already overcome. "When I was using and selling drugs, it hurt my wife and my mother and I abused in the family home. I almost lost my marriage from being locked up and going to jail, but I've come through that and now we're in the process of moving back in together.
"Things are starting to come full circle," Cooper said. "I'm almost there."
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