David Lee Windecher didn’t exactly have the kind of start in life that sets a person up for success.
He grew up poor after moving to the United States from Argentina in the 1970s, and, he says, “poverty led to my first arrest out of desperation.”
“It opened the door to the darkest years of my life.”
At 13, David witnessed his first murder, and the trauma of that moment led to more trouble — joining a gang for protection. He also dropped out of high school, and experienced abuse from police officers and the criminal justice system.
At one point, David had been arrested 13 times, and spent 8 months in jail — and this was all while he was still a juvenile.
After his last arrest in 1997, David knew he needed to change.
And it was a vision of himself as a criminal defense attorney that helped drive him to do just that.
“I would always dream about standing in front of a judge with a client standing next to me, and I would win,” he says. This dream came to him while he was incarcerated — and he took that as a sign for where he was destined to be.
“This isn’t home for you,” he told himself as he sat in a jail cell.
So, he set out to find a life that felt like home — a life of supporting incarcerated youth.
He earned his GED, graduated from college, then set his sights on law school. Out of the 50 law schools he applied to, only one gave him a chance — but that one chance was all he needed.
Today, David’s a criminal defense attorney and executive director of RED Inc., a nonprofit organization he founded in 2015.
RED stands for Rehabilitation Enables Dreams, and the organization aims to engineer rehabilitation programs so that youth don’t have to fall into the cycle of going in and out of prison for the rest of their lives.
There are a lot of factors that set formerly incarcerated youth up for failure, again and again. “I spent enough time behind bars to realize that the judicial system was wronging people because of their status,” David explains. “Whether they were poor, whether they had a substance abuse issue, a mental health disorder, an academic deficiency.”
“They were limited in resource, they were in a volatile environment — how did you expect them to flourish? It’s impossible.”
To take on these obstacles, RED pursues their mission in three parts: increasing literacy, reducing poverty, and stopping youth recidivism (which means relapse into criminal behavior).
When a first-time, nonviolent, youthful offender gets incarcerated, David says, RED’s goal is “to help them get on the straight and narrow before it’s too late.”
“Without them, I wouldn’t have a second chance,” says Brian, one of the young people in the program.
But David takes that a step further. “Most people don’t understand, it’s not their second chance. It’s their first chance — they never even had a first chance.”
The U.S. has the highest documented incarceration rates in the world — and three quarters of released prisoners go back to jail within 5 years. In Georgia, where RED operates, the incarceration rate is 32% higher than the national average.
That’s why to improve this grim picture, RED runs workshops on topics like creative writing, money management, and civil rights. They also have events to bring communities together, like flag football games, and they host guest speakers to inspire the youth.
“Some of the speakers, it was like they were talking about what I was going through,” says Brian. “If they can do it … I can do it.”
Many young people are skeptical when they first join RED – but over time, their doubts transform into hope.
“By the end of the year, they’re all saying, wait, it’s over?” David says.
As long as he’s making a difference in these young people’s lives, David knows he’s making a difference in the larger world. High rates of incarceration and recidivism negatively influence our employment rates, economy, and community safety.
That means that with every young person he gives hope to, David gives the rest of us some hope, too.
He began with only a limited chance for success in life. Now, with his help, youth with the same limited opportunities can make positive contributions to our world.
“We all have a purpose,” he says. “If we don’t carry out our purpose, no one else can.”
“No one is beyond redemption or hope.”
Watch David’s story, and RED Inc. in action:
He spent his youth in and out of jail for gang related crimes. Now he wants to stop that cycle for other at-risk kids.
For more stories about community heroes, tune in to the series premiere of “Black Lightning” on Jan. 16 at 9/8c only on The CW.
Posted by Upworthy on Thursday, January 11, 2018