13 April 2017

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Leon’s journey: From drug dealer to community leader – Thrive Global

At 18, Leon Wilson was getting quite a reputation for selling cocaine in the Pierson neighborhood on the North Side of Flint, Michigan. His name started ringing through the streets, eventually reaching Leon Parks. His dad.

Father and son hadn’t seen each other in about six years. When they reunited, Leon Wilson expected an explanation for his dad’s absence. He braced for a lecture.

It turned into a business meeting. Leon Parks wanted to buy some cocaine. If he got a good price, he’d bring his son more clients.

“That,” Leon Wilson said, “is what made my heart harden.”

With his illegal lifestyle validated – honored, even – Leon dug in deeper. He worked his way up to a supplier. A turf war broke out. Masked gunmen shot out the windows of his car from behind; when Leon turned to fire back, he took bullets in his head. He’s now deaf in his left ear and has shrapnel in his skull.

After a month in a coma, Leon sought revenge. Police got to him first. They raided Leon’s home, handcuffing and pinning down his mom, two sisters, a brother, an uncle and several nieces and nephews.

Leon pleaded guilty to drug and weapons charges. On the first day of his 12-to-20-year prison sentence, he saw the body of an inmate dangling from a higher floor. Leon would soon witness things far worse than suicide.

What really got to him were the phone calls to his mother, siblings and grandmother. In their voices, he heard the pain he caused them. It echoed in his mind during the 22 hours a day he spent on lockdown.

“That,” he said, “is what softened my heart.”

Empowered by a new outlook, a new religion and a new name, Leon Abdullah El-Alamin left prison and refused to become another statistic. Along with a friend from prison, Leon created the M.A.D.E. Institute, an organization that is giving hope and opportunities to felons looking to improve themselves and youths at risk of going down the wrong road.

Essentially, they want to turn people like them into … well, people like them.

Leon was a good kid.

Despite his dad’s errant ways and his mom’s struggles with drug addiction, alcohol and abusive relationship with men, Leon found refuge with his grandmother, Mattie Wilson – or, as he called her, Granny. For years, Sundays were spent at the Baptist church in the morning and at Granny’s dining room in the evening.

He wasn’t completely shielded, though. One day when he was around 12, a drug dealer came into his home waving a gun and looking for money he was owed. Granny bailed them out.

Leon avoided gang life in high school. Then he graduated and couldn’t resist the lure of “guys with fast cars and fast money.”

Part of the problem was the lack of a father figure. Granny’s husband had provided it, but he died.

When dealing drugs brought Leon Parks back into Leon Wilson’s life, there might’ve been a chance to straighten him out. When it went the other way, Leon Wilson doubled down on snorting cocaine and spending his weekends in limos filled with booze, prostitutes and what he now calls “rented friends.”

Everything changed the day police raided his family home. He took a plea deal and, in 2003, headed behind bars.

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