“School for me was really time to hang out and get high,” Gregory Myers says, describing his formative years in Yonkers. Though today he’s an outreach worker with SNUG, the Yonkers YMCA’s violence-interruption program, he can well relate to the local kids he has dedicated his life to helping.
As a teenager, Gregory sold drugs and committed burglaries to get by. His own mother, a chronic drug user, was stabbed to death during a dope deal gone wrong. But the drugs, thefts, and violence weren’t just a part of his story; they were the main actors in his community, the stars of the show.
“When people tell you you won’t amount to anything, it really sticks in your head,” Gregory says. And that was the message he got from the adults in his life. Lacking a reliable support system, Gregory spent most of his youth moving in and out of prison. It was during his last stint, serving a 12-to-life sentence, that he discovered something important.
“I was seeing young men come in with 25-to-life sentences, 16 flat, 20 flat. Why?” Gregory wanted to know. As the prison’s orientation guide, it was his responsibility to introduce those same young men to their new home. Deeply familiar with the prison population, which was divided by gang factions, he saw an opportunity to help his incoming peers stay out of trouble. While showing them the lay of the land, he’d dispense tips for avoiding violence and finding ways to remain productive in prison.
Gregory found that helping others, particularly young men whose lives were so similar to his own, helped stifle his own demons. When he told his story to the parole board in 2009, he was able to state with confidence, ”Helping the youth is my life’s calling.”
After returning home to Yonkers, Gregory split his time between working for a moving company and volunteering at the local YMCA. When his boss at the YMCA mentioned they were starting a program to interrupt violence in Yonkers, Gregory jumped at the opportunity. He told his story to a board of police officials and interested parties, and was hired almost immediately as one of SNUG’s first outreach workers.
– Lara Unnerstall