Over the last few weeks, I”ve been thinking about how much Leondra Tillman and Omar Amir Gray”s ability to stay away from drugs matters for the future of Columbus. I grew up with Leondra and Omar in Columbus. As a child, Leondra would walk from house to house asking people if they needed their lawns cut or their leaves raked. Even then, he was enthusiastic; always with a steady walk and a serious face.
My memories of Omar start in high school. He wasn”t an athlete or the student government type. He blended in more than stood out. Except, if you were lucky enough to talk to him, you found out that he possessed rare qualities of honesty and humility. He had little of the jealousy and envy prevalent in the high school experience, which is why he has a great memory of everyone in our 2001 high school graduating class.
I lost touch with Omar and Leondra after high school. Recently, we”ve been reacquainted because they do some work for a realty company, CrossCurrents, managed by my brother, Andrew, and our friend Arjun Kaul.
Leaondra has started a business called “Ja”Hi”nance Beautification.” Omar is his main employee. Leondra and Omar paint, drywall, do home repairs, installations, mowing and weed eating, fencing, tree trimming, and planting. The company”s slogan is “a King Ship job, at a Peasant”s Price.” (Leondra walks around with this list of job skills and the company slogan in his pocket).
This company represents a second chance for Leondra and Omar. They both have had to deal with the consequences of bad decisions in their past. For a short period of time, Leondra sold drugs.
Drug addiction is often viewed from the user”s perspective. But the drug dealer also enters a spiral of self-destructive behavior. Leondra admits he lived in a false sense of reality; a mindset that said making money was the only thing that mattered, and thus living fast and risky and hurting others felt justified. Also, for a born businessman like Leondra, compared to working at a fast food restaurant and surviving on minimum wage, selling drugs made business sense.
On the other hand, Omar”s problems with drugs started because he wanted to be cool. His desire to have the respect of certain peers pressured him into trying cocaine. Before he knew it, he was spending $300 out of a $500 check supporting the habit. Eventually, Omar was convicted of drug possession and went to rehabilitation program, where he realized, as cliche as it may sound, that doing drugs isn”t cool and he kicked the habit.
Maybe it was the constant promotion of drug dealing in rap music, or the high demand for crack cocaine, or the high concentration of poverty in some parts of this city; but, for whatever the reason, too many of my peers have been hurt by the drug epidemic. Too many have criminal records. Too many have died. Too many don”t have hope.
Nevertheless, that”s not true for Leondra and Omar. Despite their past mistakes, Leondra and Omar say they are committed to staying out of trouble and want to have productive lives. They show up to work. They work hard. They do a good job. They aren”t perfect, but they are clearly trying, of that I can testify. They are also willing to tell their stories publicly, in the hope they can help others.
Whether or not Omar and Leondra are successful in their recovery affects us in many ways. It impacts whether we continue to have high incarceration rates due to drug arrests and the crime associated with it. It impacts whether we can reduce the high school drop out rate or teenage pregnancy. It impacts whether neighborhoods can revitalize and prosper. We should encourage Leondra, Omar, and others like them. We need to find ways to help them, to motivate them. We should pray for them. Because, if they are not successful; if the ones who have not given up hope don”t succeed, then many of the major problems facing Columbus and Mississippi will not be go away.
Scott Colom is a local attorney.
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