There was an odd reunion Friday morning at East High School.
The impromptu meeting brought together two old high school friends from the Class of ’89. Andre Moore, dressed in navy blue and wearing his Akron police badge, smiled as he hugged former classmate Rocky Hatfield, who came dressed in tan, handcuffed and wearing his own badge bearing his mug shot and inmate number.
While their lives took radically different paths, the two East High men came together with one message, hoping to reach out to city youths about life choices and avoiding prison or worse.
“We’re all trying to catch these kids, reach out to them, be mentors to them, so we don’t have another class reunion like this,” said Moore, a 17-year police officer and Air Force veteran.
For several dozen youths and adults gathered at the high school auditorium, Friday was a convergence of the Akron Police K.N.A.F.F. youth program and the state prison system’s Dope is for Dopes outreach program.
K.N.A.F.F, short for Kids Need a Firm Foundation, is named after Akron Patrolman George Knaff, who was killed in the line of duty when his cruiser collided with a drunken driver in November 1994. Officers in the program have worked with thousands of area kids, both at-risk youth as well as crime victims, during the past 15 years.
Dope is for Dopes is a program from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction in which inmates speak to youths about staying away from drugs, staying in school and living positively and honestly.
“The idea we try to present to kids is that prison is not somewhere anybody should want to go to,” said prison case manager and program coordinator Roger Vandersommen.
Four inmates, including Hatfield, came escorted and shackled into the high school. But their hands were free as they took the stage, flanked throughout the auditorium by about a half dozen Akron police officers working for the K.N.A.F.F. program.
This was actually the third time Hatfield and Moore have seen each other since high school. In the 1990s, Moore arrested Hatfield during a domestic situation. Last month, they saw each other again during a similar youth outreach seminar at the Grafton Correctional Institution, where Hatfield lives.
The inmate smiled broadly throughout his return to school and seeing Officer Moore as well as the neighborhood where he grew up. His visit also served as a reminder of his own poor choices.
“It was very emotional to see [Moore] and the choices he made and where he went in life and how he presented himself in school and compare it to the way I presented myself in school as a thug and drug addict,” Hatfield said after giving a 20-minute speech and taking questions from the audience.
“I see that I got what I was looking for and he got what he was looking for. So, it was kind of humbling to see if I had been on the right track where I could have in my life.”
Hatfield, 41, with about 11 months remaining on a seven-year sentence he received for felonious assault and drug possession, gave the crowd a synopsis of his life: witnessing the abuses of his alcoholic father, his first tastes of marijuana and cocaine before he could drive, his philandering, addictions and drug sales, pimping women for cocaine, broken relationships and eventually his attempted overdose and prison.
“I thought I was kicking it,” he said. “I thought I was having fun. But look where I am today.”
Akron Officer Lionel Millender, a 28-year veteran and a founder of the K.N.A.F.F. program, said officers have worked with 4,000 to 5,000 children over the years, trying to break through communication fronts, be role models and show them positive life choices.
Opening the lines
Having the kids meet inmates and hear their stories is just one way. Having officers spend time and counseling the teens is another.
“We want to try to open the lines of communication between police officers and at-risk kids, help kids from going astray and prevent them from going to prison or doing other crazy stuff,” Millender said.
Hatfield said he needed that advice in his youth. He dropped out of East High during his senior year, and he said his life spiraled further out of control. He found peace and sobriety behind prison walls, he said. And he intends to spread his message whenever and wherever he can, including his old stomping grounds on the city’s east side.
Hatfield implored the youths in attendance to use the resources available to them, seek out positive role models and make positive choices.
“This is my high school,” Hatfield told the audience. “I went here about 21 years ago and I’m sad to say that I didn’t finish here. I’m sad to say a lot of things I’m going to say to you today, but they make me who I am today.
“I’m not proud of the choices I made in my life. I’m not proud of nothing I did, the examples I set. I’m not proud of nothing.”
Phil Trexler can be reached at 330-996-3717 or firstname.lastname@example.org.