Writing poetry brings calm to father who wants a better life for his son, and who also hopes to be ‘uplifting to others’
John Collins, who is featured in “Voices” in our Syracuse Jobs Matters project, sat down for subsequent interviews to share more details about his upbringing, his criminal past and his aspirations for himself and his son. Then, after being unemployed since fall 2015, Collins landed a job in April 2016 as a mechanic at Airport Lighting Company in Manlius, New York. His job entails wiring and putting in pad lights at Syracuse Hancock International Airport. We caught up yet again with Collins, who is excited to be employed.Q: You’ve just been hired. How does it feel?
A: This is a great opportunity because I’m skilled and experienced in a lot of areas, and I do believe they will pay me based on my experience — that will keep me well established.
Q: When you were younger what did you want to be when you grew up?
A: I wanted to be a football star or a lawyer. I was being recruited by Penn State, and I ripped my tendon and I couldn’t play. I always wish it could have worked out but I understand that life has its reasoning for different things.
Q: What are some of your passions?
A: What I have a love for is writing. That’s where my passion lies.
Q: How did your passion for writing come about?
A: I guess I always wanted to talk to someone, so I would talk to the sheet of paper. I would express my feelings, and I didn’t have to worry about anybody judging me. Then I started writing poetry, and poetry was very therapeutic for me. A lot of people started reading my work and they were like ‘you should do something with your work.’ I’ve always had a love and a passion for writing, but I’m currently in the stages of really giving people the opportunity to read and share my work.
Q: Are you ever hesitant to share your work with others?
A: What comes along with writing is that it’s a form of exposure. You are just exposing yourself to different individuals — opening up and giving them portions of you. If I could give people portions of different aspects of life where it could be helpful to them, I’m for it. I didn’t feel like I had any blueprint or rulebook. It’s just different modules of assistance that could help people along the way.
Q: What do you write about?
A: I’m really not trying to miss people so I write in various portions. I might write poetry that might be dealing with love, some people like erotica, or life issues, struggles of life, empowering, inspirational … whatever is on my mind at that time. But I try not to isolate myself from one area because I do realize that people are different.
Q: What was your childhood like?
A: I lost my father when I was 8, and I lost my mother when I was 11, so I was put in a situation where I was just given to my family. The old saying goes, ‘Ain’t nobody gonna love you like mom.’ I was put in a situation with family members where I didn’t feel they were obligated but I was very much appreciative of the love that they displayed. I had a sister and a brother as well, and we didn’t have anybody.
Q: With whom did you live after your parents died?
A: I lived with my mother’s sister. The life I lived with my mother was poverty stricken. When I was brought to my aunt, my family was more stable. It was a whole new way of living. They were very spiritual people.
Q: When you started to grow up, did you have a career path in mind?
A: I was doing what I was familiar with, and it was the easy way. In a poverty state instead of people trying to be patient and wait on different things, sometime they try to get that right now. That’s what I was most familiar with. I followed suit, but I didn’t want to follow suit.
In the midst of me trying to graduate, I needed to make microwave decisions. Before I knew it I looked up, I was around 27 and my sister had spoken to me, and that’s when I started to look at life seriously. I was having fun partying, but then I started looking at it like, what am I doing? I had told myself that no matter what it took I would do everything in my nature to redirect the way things were going.
Q: What type of things were you involved with?
A: I started selling drugs. People call it gangs, but I wouldn’t say that we were a gang. It was just people we grew up with all our lives. I started chilling with people we were ‘ride or die’ for. At about 19 when I graduated, it was a fast-paced life. My best friend tried to rob me, and he put me in the hospital. When I got out of the hospital in my revengeful state, I ended up shooting him. He lived. It’s crazy, but it just goes to show you how we as individuals can turn something small into something major. I ended up doing nine years and two months. I was 19, so when I came home I was 28. I had missed out on so much. At the same time I was like I’m not getting out doing the same thing — I’m not. Even though it was an easier way, I didn’t desire to continue this foolery. Since that period in my life when I was 28, I’ve put my energy into turning my life around.
Q: Has your criminal past made it difficult for you to find a job?
A: Jobs and a place of residence. Some jobs ask for it, so I put it on some. It’s been over 17 years since that happened. You can’t live in certain areas, certain apartments if you have a felony because they check your background. (Trisha Cain, who is Collins’ job coach at Visions for Change, said that a criminal past hasn’t been an issue for Collins’ mechanical work.)Q: At what point did you want to change the course of your life?
A: A lot of people were scared of me in the streets. I was known for being coldhearted and not caring for people in that type of lifestyle. They had told my sister that she had 30 minutes to live — she had lupus, and they said she had 30 minutes to live. The pastor came and said she’s not going to die; this is God’s way of trying to get someone’s attention. I talked to God about it. I said, ‘Lord, if you heal my sister, I will leave these streets alone.’ It was a challenge. When she got better, I really tried to fly back off to the streets. I didn’t have any money at that point.
Q: How did you overcome that challenge?
A: I was in a position to hurt an individual but my spirit wouldn’t let me. I would want to, and I would say to myself, ‘I’m tired of hurting people.’
Q: What were the circumstances?
A: It was 2012, some people kicked in the door and robbed me. And when they did my nephew was with me, and he was real young, maybe 13. I was concerned about my nephew’s livelihood. I didn’t want him to get corroded by what was going on in the streets, but I was the streets. The people who had robbed me, I was looking for them. I will never forget this, this was an eye-opening time. I was smoking some weed, and I was nervous. I couldn’t get the dude who robbed me, but I was going to get his uncle. I knew he loved his uncle and it’s sad because in the event of him loving his uncle, I was willing to do something to his uncle. I had gotten in the car. This is when I feel like I had my first spiritual encounter. I had a gun on my lap, and I had my phone in my lap. I had my music blasting. The phone vibrated, and it was ‘Restricted’ and they hung up. When they hung up, I had a school on my left and a church on my right with a digital billboard. When the digital billboard popped up it said, ‘God is trying to get your attention.’ I don’t believe in coincidences, but I pulled over on the side. I just started crying. And I said, ‘Lord, I don’t want to live like this anymore. I just want to get out. Something had told me ‘go to the house and read your Bible.’ So I went home and read my Bible. That happened on a Saturday. I went to church on Sunday and told them I wanted to get saved. It’s been a fight since then.
Q: How do you stay positive for your son?
A: I try to be an example. I want him to understand that as a man, you don’t have to be perfect. But even if you fall down to get right back. After whatever occurs, I shed my tears, and I get back up and keep going. Errors happen. No one’s perfect, but keep trying no matter what.
Q: Did work ever interfere with your ability to raise your son?
A: I was working nights (as a warehouse technician at Byrne Dairy Factory), and my job was a block away from my house. I would tell my boss that I didn’t want my break until it was time to get my son dressed for school, so I could run home and take him. It wasn’t hard.
Q: Can you describe the experience of job searching?
A: My thing isn’t a problem with getting a job or getting interviews. My thing is having a career- oriented job where it could be edifying to me and my family as a whole. Me getting a job that’s $9, $10 an hour job and I don’t like it, would just put me in this cycle. Job interviews have been coming. A lot of people say I’m kind of stubborn, but I know my worth. I got certification, I got skills, and I’m sticking to it. I’m still writing while I search. … I’m just staying focused, one step at a time, trying to plan and strategize.
Q: What are you doing to help you reach a career-oriented job?
A: Stay on course. Stick to the plan. I have goals that I write out for myself: weekly goals, daily goals, monthly goals and yearly goals. I got this from Visions for Change, but since I was 28, I’ve been trying to turn things around, so I’ve constantly been doing things to make me as good as possible. I had to become a whole different persona. I had to get rid of stuff before I could put in new stuff. It’s gotten better over the years. It’s just life teaching me.
Q: What would be your dream career?
A: Writing and sharing my work. Whether it’s poetry, inspirational work — just being able to be an asset to others. Being uplifting to others and making their situation easier. Anything that can correlate with that, that’s my dream job.
Q: Was there ever a time when you wanted to give up?
A: Plenty of times I wanted to give up. I would look at my son and my kids as the reason why I was pressing. They gave me more reason than anything to just keep going on. If it was just about me, I probably don’t love me enough to keep going. The fact that I was willing to endure for my kids’ livelihood — it was so fulfilling. I feel like everything I encounter can be edifying to my son’s upbringing. I know that my experiences can be edifying not only to me, but also can be bestowed onto many.
Q: How do you stay upbeat?
A: Your will to live needs to be stronger than your desire to die. Even though I feel like it’s selected individuals who are blessed in some way, I do realize that life will bless me in my due time. I’m not an individual that’s envious of anyone’s upbringing. When I see other people’s success, it motivates me and makes me think it’s not over. If they can do it, I can do it. They’re no different from me.
Q: Is there anyone in particular you look up to as a success story?
A: Tupac. I follow him. He made me dig even deeper. I was really one-dimensional at one time. And now I just want to spill into people abundantly.
Q: What qualities do you believe you have that make you a valuable employee?
A: Attention to detail, my desire to grow and to learn more, and to excel in every area possible. My work ethics are consistent. (Trisha Cain, who is Collins’ job coach at Visions for Change, puts a different attribute ahead of Collins’ attention to detail. “If you’ve met John you know — he has a great personality. He’s high energy, he’s genuinely a good person.”) Q: What makes someone employable?
A: Nowadays you got to have the edge. Your customer service is important, along with your attitude with people.
Q: If you could change anything in your past would you?
A: A lot of the time when I complain about it, I realize I wouldn’t know now what I do if I hadn’t encountered something. I believe I became a lot stronger. I’m grateful. I can honestly say that what I’ve been through in life has been truly edifying. That’s how I learn. When you’re at your happiest, you don’t pay attention to anything. It has so much more of an effect when you go through these things.
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