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The walls at Worcester nonprofit Fresh Start’s location at 16 Austin St. are adorned with accolades from local politicians, published newspaper articles, a bachelor’s degree from Worcester State University, a master’s degree from Cambridge College, and a mental health counselor certification.
Few would guess behind these achievements and milestones was a former gang leader who served jail time in the Worcester House of Correction and federal time in the Washington D.C. and Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton, Va.
“I'm not only the founder of Fresh Start, but I'm also the cofounder of the first gang out here in Worcester, Massachusetts,” Derrick Kiser said.
Fresh Start creates and implements mental health programs in the criminal justice and educational systems. Originally targeted to help at-risk youth, the program has grown to encompass ex-convicts trying to assimilate back into society, gang members trying to leave, and the homeless, or the forgotten people as Kiser calls these three populations.
“His agenda is to help people stay off of some of the paths that he went on in life because he’s had time to reflect on that and see a better way,” said Worcester County Sheriff Lewis Evangelidis, who partners with Kiser to educate the population at the Worcester House of Correction in West Boylston.
Yet, even as the Fresh Start’s services earn accolades and are in demand, Kiser has struggled to find consistent funding for his nonprofit, as it survives off his volunteer time and one $60,000 grant it received in the early phases of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It's a lot to try to run your own nonprofit and still be able to find allies, get funding, and get grants when you're not that familiar with all these other systems and entities, especially with me being an ex-gang member, not even a gang member, but an ex-gang leader. A lot of people probably look at me and say, ‘He crazy. I ain’t working with him,’” Kiser said.
Born in Pittsburg, Kiser’s family moved to Worcester when he was 7 years old. Kiser spent most of his life growing up in Main South.
“There were certain factors that put me in certain situations where, when we were only 13, we were doing a lot of bad stuff, and influenced by different people,” Kiser said
With little else to do than to play with the one broken basketball hoop in the neighborhood, Kiser and his brother started running the streets alone and hanging out with the wrong crowds. The two boys were in the midst of the cocaine era, further influenced by the images of wealth and women depicted in drug lord movies such as “Scarface” and “New Jack City”.
The descent into crime was fast as the boys became the only mobile drug trade in the city and formed the Kilby Street Posse.
“Then the police used to come down. There was a lot of unrest and a lot of violence. And then the police just started calling us a gang, and then the media started calling us a gang; and so we labeled ourselves, and we became a gang,” Kiser said.
Kiser lived his life entrenched in Worcester’s gang scene until at the age of 25 when he was locked up at the Worcester House of Correction and came across the book “The Enforcer”, a true story about an Italian mafia member who turned his life around and found Christianity.
“After reading that book, I fell down on my knees, and I prayed to God. I said, ‘You get me out of this situation, and I promise to change my life’. Twenty-five years later, I got my promise, and here I am now,” Kiser said.
As a former Worcester public school teacher and mental health counselor, Kiser understands the complexities that influence young people to join gangs. Through Fresh Start, he focuses on four pillars: self-care, life skills, community involvement, and intervention and prevention.
The wellness center features a music room, gym, and art room where local kids can express their emotions in a healthy way. He also uses subliminal therapy while offering services such as haircuts and employment assistance. Ultimately, Kiser’s goal is to eliminate the mental anguish, sadness, and anger.
Children in schools and adults with jobs cannot focus on learning or working if they are focused on literal survival such as being in dangerous environments, not having access to food, or worrying about violence affecting their family and friends.
“That's what I do, I minimize your negative risk factors and empower you with positive factors through your life choices because life's all about choices; but if you are so polluted in your choices it becomes so cloudy, you're not seeing the clarity of what's right or what's wrong,” Kiser said.
Kiser has strong relationships with both gangs and local law enforcement, making him a bridge in a divided system. Fresh Start has provided 280 individuals with jobs and provided mental health services to more than 100.
Judges have court-ordered prisoners attend Kiser’s program and work with him to find jobs. Fresh Start has partnered with the likes of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, which has hired program participants for the cleaning initiative Worcester Green Corps. Chamber President and CEO Timothy Murray speaks at Fresh Start classes.
Yet, while Fresh Start works to deter criminal activity, Kiser has not been able to secure consistent community funding. Kiser’s personal savings and remortgaged house sustain Fresh Start. He does not get paid for the 40 hours a week he works.
During the pandemic, Kiser had to reduce the entire first floor he rented out on Austin Street to a few rooms since he could not afford the expense.
When seeking nonprofit funding, Kiser oftentimes feels like the process is stacked against him.
“I'm not a good grant writer. I don't know how to do the proposals,” he said. “Then say, ‘Where's your data at? Where's your funding at, and where's your financial sponsor?’ You have individuals that's in this community that want to continue self preservation. They want to continue to give to the individuals that they know. A lot of these individuals from the city that hold this money are on certain boards, and that's the good old boy network.”
Fresh Start in 2020 received a $60,000 grant from the Barr Foundation in Boston, in order to keep its doors open during the pandemic. That funding will run out soon.
On any given day, Fresh Start’s space is being used by other nonprofit organizations who lack space of their own. Roberta Nelson, Daniela Marie, and Lisa Candalaria are all volunteers at Fresh Start who use the 16 Austin St. office to coordinate their community efforts.
Candelaria has been a social worker for 22 years and is a clinician at Worcester nonprofit Seven Hills Foundation. She volunteers at Fresh Start and uses his reputation to give her access to help individuals who otherwise would not seek treatment.
She said Kiser understands the idiosyncrasies that often derail those in recovery or those who want to leave a life of crime. Employment is key to stabilizing a person who is at-risk.
“It’s like a cycle. If you can’t get a job, you go back to the life,” she said.
Nelson is a family friend of Kiser’s whose nonprofit Life Empowerment Coaching uses motivational programming to help people, especially youth, deal with daily stressors in healthy ways, rather than seek drugs. As someone who is in recovery herself, Nelson understands the struggle and seeks to help children build hopes and dreams.
Nelson has been a volunteer at Fresh Start for over a year when she began beautifying the neighborhood so that kids could take pride in their homes.
“It is a blessing to work with Derrick,” Nelson said.
Marie focuses on urban gardening to yield community benefits like sustainability, providing fresh foods, and beautifying neighborhoods.
“It was not just about the food, but it was a way for people to participate in their community; and Derrick has given me a platform to do that,” Marie said.
Ideally, Kiser would like to hire people like Nelson, Marie, and Candelaria who want to work and help at-risk populations in Worcester.
“If I was able to pay them, we would accomplish so much because we have vision,” Kiser said.
Kiser visits the Worcester House of Correction multiple times a week to speak to the prisoners and gang members to help them break unhealthy cycles. With a bicep full of tattoos honoring friends who died in gang fights, Kiser can connect to the jailed men in a way that most people cannot.
“Because of his experience being involved, particularly in the gang culture of Worcester, he can not only talk to talk, he's walked the walk; and not everybody has that background,” Sheriff Evangelidis said.
Kiser and Evangelidis both recognize the importance of re-entry programs and job opportunities. Stable employment often makes the difference between prisoners reforming their lives or falling back into crime.
“It’s often said that a job is the best social service program, and I believe that. If you do the work on the inside, we will help you outside,” Evangelidis said.