Time is all it takes

After three months, a lot of tests, and a lot of loads of laundry, I have finally made it to Thanksgiving break of my first semester. During this time of adjustment– I wish I knew how to make a bed before I got here– it hasn’t been easy to pursue my passions. I mean, life gets in the way of things.

I started this semester by talking with a professor in World in Conversation about ways to get involved in the criminal justice system, because I really wanted to bring the experiences that I had in high school to Penn State; however, we have had a rough time communicating with the warden of Rockview Prison.

About a week ago, I was stumped. I had no clue how to get involved in service inside of a prison near Penn State. Then, out of nowhere, I remembered a conversation I had with my adviser earlier in the fall; she encouraged me to bring the program that I started in high school to Penn State and shared with me an initiative called “Centre Peace” that she thought would interest me– I wish I would’ve realized that back then!

I decided to email Centre Peace and within a day I received an email back from the director of volunteering, and a connecting email from the director of Penn State’s Restorative Justice Initiative. I met with the professor who oversees the program, and finally, I am confident that I have found an outlet to continue my prison missionary. While RJI is an initiative primarily run by graduate students, I believe my standing as an undergraduate will allow for further growth on campus.

I have been assigned the task of organizing an intramural league with a nearby prison, in which Penn State students would compete against inmates in basketball and floor hockey. The goal is to allow inmates to have contact with the outside world and for college students to engage with inmates. Now, you may ask why? The answer is complex; moreover, playing sports seems sort of simple and pointless. But, looking deeper than the games played, inmates and college students would be able to form connections, and hopefully, those connections will allow those students to change the way they label and perceive “criminals.”

I know for sure that events such as the one I talked about above, are simply stepping stones to a bigger picture. Down the line, I would love to engage a larger portion of Penn State, and hopefully encourage others to get involved in the issues surrounding criminal “justice”, if we can even call it justice at all. I think this subject, given the nature of how our society views “criminals”, has not gained the attention which it deserves; however, years from now, I believe future generations will look back at our form of criminal justice and cringe at the thought of it. I guess we’ll have to wait, but I plan to make that waiting a whole lot shorter.

Did my family get me to the place I am today?


I had an amazing childhood. I went on vacations every year, I had a strong relationship with my father and grandfather through baseball, I helped my mom and grandma make cookies, and all in all, I spent hours upon hours with my family.

I loved it.

I grew up in what seemed to be a magical world; a world where the design was set by my family. All of their ideas, beliefs, and stories I stored into my mind as fact. I grew up in a system that stood strong until high school, when I came into contact with the real world.

I began taking the subway to school everyday into the NYC, making friends from different states, ethnic back grounds, and socio-economic statuses, and learning at an esteemed institution, Regis High School, known for its liberal ideologies. The change in atmosphere, at first, was refreshing, but soon, I began to run into a problem: the clash between my childhood fantasy land and the reality of life.

I differed from my friends in many ways. Some were a lot wealthier than myself, and hence, their families were more educated. I found myself debating with these kids at lunch about many issues. For example, they would say something about President Obama, and I would immediately exclaim, “He’s a terrible President!” Not because I knew what i was talking about, but because my family was Republican and did not support him.

Others, were a lot less fortunate than myself, and I had no means to relate to their experience. These kids would not go out to eat with some of my friends after school, and they would often complain about how expensive things were. These were the kids that held jobs, and I would often times think, “Why do they have a job? They should be studying.”

As a thirteen year old kid, I had no idea how to process these questions and experiences. In previous blogs I have talked about how this predicament led me to service and how my experiences in disadvantaged communities had an impact on me, but it also had a great impact on my family. When my family started to see me take interest in these issues, maybe even more than sports like in the past, they began to ask questions. Conversations became deeper and more personal, and while at  times we debated between each other about different issues, my family fully supported my newfound interests.

I was able to learn that my family’s, especially my parents’, passion was my passion; furthermore, they fully supported what ever I found intriguing. They soon became my biggest supporters, and in many cases, asked the question, “Hen, why don’t you do more?” My family became the driving force behind a number of my service projects. I’ve already talked about how my mom gave me the idea of the Super Bowl Boxes for AIDS orphans in Kenya, but their impact on me did not end there. They began to actively get involved in what I loved.

My family was not “bad” or “racist” they just didn’t have the same experiences or education that I was blessed to have, and with confidence, I am able to say that they are one of the major reasons why I am the person I am today.



I guess… I’m lucky?

I had three initial reactions, when met the inmates. The first, as most would expect, was one of fear. Questions, such as “What if there is a riot?” “What if I piss one of them off?” flooded my mind.

The second, was one of shock. The youth inmates were roughly the same age as us high school students, ranging from seventeen to nineteen.

The third, was one of curiosity. Why were all of the inmates men of color? I am not talking about most of the inmates. I am talking about all thirty or so.

I am beyond thankful for these initial reactions; furthermore, they have given rise too countless questions and insights ever since. The first is obvious, because who wouldn’t fear a “criminal?” If they are in a jail than we must perceive them as criminal, right? That’s how I perceived the situation for my entire life– criminals were the men and women attacking my father, a police officer. But are all of them actually a threat to society?

Let’s say for instance that I was caught selling weed by a police officer. I would probably be arrested– could be debatable due to my skin color and connections– but I would not go to jail in the interim before my court case, because I would be able to post bail. Many of the inmates on Rikers Island, which is in a sense a “holding pen” for incarcerated people awaiting trial, cannot meet the means of paying for their bail. So, these people committing non-violent crimes are being stashed away in prison with men and women whom have been accused of murder, rape, and the like, for the sole reason that they cannot afford to buy their way out of jail.

This leads me to observation number three. There must be some reason that African Americans are occupying such a staunch percent of prison cells. One key correlation must be race and socio-economic status. And when thinking about socio-economic status, one must analyze the family as a teaching unit. Moreover, children are a product of not only their parents but also their surroundings, and a child’s experiences and interactions during adolescent development play a critical role in their future behavior (observation two).

So, clearly there Is something going wrong with this system of justice. Justice or fairness clearly is not distributed equally across race and economic status. As my project expanded, I kept raising more and more questions. I began to look at prison inmates, beyond the mere title “criminal.” I was able to understand that they are just as much people as I am through conversations and activities. Just in many cases, they got dealt, as many would say, the bad hand of cards. 

I want people to understand the complexity to the word “criminal” and to begin to evaluate the justice behind the criminal justice system. This is why I am in the works of creating a partnership between Penn State and Rockview Prison.

Yes, I went to prison

Sure, I love serving those in the community whom need help… So do so many other people! Like I mentioned in previous blogs, I enjoy using my passion and charisma in order to maximize the impact of my service; however, my personality is definitely not the only definitive characteristic of my service. I like to be bold and take risks; I mean serious, potentially life changing risks.

When I was little, I was not the same perfect, infallible human being that I am today. In fact, on weekend trips to Pennsylvania, where a lot of my family lives, my parents would stop by the local “bad boys’ home” for me to absorb its appealing sight. My parents would say, “Hen, if you keep getting yelled at in school, you’re going to end up behind those barb wires.” I still remember looking in fear at the mountainous fences, razor sharp wires, and dreary buildings thinking, “Man, I’m going to be a good boy from now on!” I mean who wants to go to prison? I don’t know about you, but I always wanted to stay as far away as possible from them!

Well, sometimes, things don’t work out as planned. In my junior year of high school, I entered New York City’s infamous Rikers Island Correctional Facility. A simple google search shows that the prison is one of the most dangerous prisons in the country, but unfortunate Henry, not listening to his parents, found himself walking through the gated hallways of that very same prison with a bag of underwear over his shoulder and an admit card in his hand…

Being escorted by several guards, my peers and I entered a large cinderblock walled room, and laid our supplies down on a series of tables. We organized the clothing by size and waited for further instruction. Out of nowhere, we heard a loud siren proceeded by the clash of a metal gate, and I will never forget looking at my teacher in utter fear. The inmates entered the room without handcuffs and the only thing separating us from them were a handful of guards and plastic tables, and in a few minutes that simple line of defense would seem like a whole lot. My teacher gave me the queue, and I walked up to the inmates and introduced our group: Regis and Rikers.

The basis of the project was to extend service to the imprisoned and incarcerated, but more importantly, to spread awareness of the many imperfections of the United States Criminal Justice System. Now, you may ask, “Why a do you care about people that rape, murder, and pillage? Why not direct your service at those whom deserve it, such as the sick?” I thought the same thing for most of my life.

People forget that “criminals,” whether they or guilty or not, are human beings, and that simple fact should mean enough for people to care about them. I will not get into the specific problems regarding this country’s criminal justice system in this blog post; however, if you are reading this, I ask you to start thinking about a few things… First, does early childhood living conditions and development play a role in future behavior? Second, how does the current state of the criminal justice system ensure justice, if it even focuses on justice at all? Third, what could a student led service organization possibly do to bring meaningful change?



Serve with Your Tongue Out


When I loved to play baseball, oh man, did I show it. You know in grammar school when you’re playing a sport, whether that be soccer, football, or softball, and your coach asks you to cheer for your teammates, well, I had the opposite problem. My coaches used to tell me to quiet down and relax.

When I began to get heavily involved in regular service, I developed a strong desire to help those in need; however, I was not yet sure how I could make an impact that would be different than everyone else. I mean, for the most part, anyone could fill a cup of soup, collect money, or stock shelves. So, I was left with the question: how can I really make a difference?

I don’t mean to say that I simply wanted to be the center of attention in the service that I did, instead, I wanted to stand out in terms of the result of my service. Take the picture below as an example.






Yes, that is me embarrassing myself on the dance floor with elementary school children. Yes, all the attention is radiated around me. Yes, I look so extra and maybe a little strange. But besides those things, you have to think about what I am doing. The picture was taken during a visit to an elementary school in East Harlem, New York. The kids in the picture primarily come from low income families, and it was my service club’s idea to provide the children with a Christmas Celebration– who knows if their families can give them the same Christmas experience that most of us know and love. Originally, it was our idea to simply hand out candy and color books with the children, but I was having no part in that. If we were going to party, we were going party!

So, yes, I dressed up as Santa and looked ridiculous, but at the end of the day, my group and I held an amazing dance party and the kids were not able to stop smiling or dancing. I know that the kids had a tremendous amount of fun, and I would like to think that my character and my passion to stand out played a role in maximizing our impact on the children.

Now that I have been actively engaged in service for several years, I have grown to love the reward of putting a smile on a person’s face. I have been able to make an impact on communities of suffering ranging from prison inmates trying desperately to reform their lives to patients in hospitals fighting for a few extra days to be with their families.

The work that I have done is not plugged into a stat sheet, like it was in my previous days playing baseball, but I’d like to think life is more than just the “stats.” There’s nothing better than doing something you love and knowing that you can be yourself every step of the way.