Richard Norat spent twenty years incarcerated before joining The Doe Fund’s Ready, Willing & Able program, which he credits with saving his life. On October 30th, 2014, Mr. Norat shared his story with 500 attendees at The Doe Fund’s Annual Gala.
Good evening, everyone.
My name is Richard Norat. A year ago tonight, I was in my first month of Ready, Willing & Able. In fact, I was standing right outside those doors, greeting people and welcoming them to the Gala. Last year, I was on the outside, looking in. Not just at this beautiful event, but at life in general. I didn’t have my path yet. And I didn’t know what my future looked like. I definitely couldn’t have imagined being up on this stage just twelve months later, speaking to all of you.
But a lot can happen in a year. Today, I am a graduate of Ready, Willing & Able; I am a licensed pest control professional in the great state of New York; and a few weeks ago, I moved into my very first home.
I want to clarify that. Because, I’ve always had a roof over my head. When I was a kid, I had a roof over my head. I had a roof over my head while I watched my family do drugs and eventually I got hooked on them myself at eight years old.
When I was running the streets and scaring people in this city, I had a roof.
And for the twenty years I spent inside the penitentiary, I had a roof then, too. What I’ve never had is a home.
Going away for twenty years is a terrifying thing. But after a while, all the fear about how you’re ever going to get through it gives way. You don’t have a choice, except to get through it. And little by little, the fear gets replaced…by sadness; by loneliness; by despair.
The worst time of year was right about now–when the holidays were coming up. In the prison yard, you could watch TV.
It was usually a good way to escape. But during the holidays, the only things on television were shows about families together, around a big table, with turkeys and Christmas trees and gifts. They were all at home, all together. And they looked happy.
I had never had a meal like that in my entire life. Not even when I was a kid. And I never had the holidays, or Thanksgiving, or anything that looked like what was on TV. Feeling the weight of the next twenty years ahead of me, I didn’t think I ever could.
So around the holidays, I used the little bit of privacy and time alone you get in prison to grieve, and to cry.
In jail, you make about 17 cents an hour working around the cell block. So, it’s a good thing that hope is free. The hope of getting out one day. The hope for a chance to make something out of my life. The hope of having a home, instead of just a roof.
My friend, Pete Martinez and I–we did a lot of hoping together. He was in for even longer than I was.
What we decided was, if you’re going to keep optimism alive in prison, then you have to make plans, envision your future, and actually do something about it.
So before Pete and I got out, we got to work.
I learned how to read in jail. I learned how to write in jail. I saved up my 17 cents an hour for months to buy a radio so I could listen to NPR and improve my vocabulary. I got my GED in jail. And I kept going, and going, because I still had some hope left.
Pete and I spent a lot of time in the yard talking about what we’d do when we got out. In the early days, they were just dreams. But as we got closer to the possibility of parole, it got serious. We needed a plan. We needed a place. And in an old directory of services that they kept in the prison library, we found The Doe Fund.
We came to an agreement: whoever made it out first would check out the program and report back. After 27 years in prison, Pete got approved for parole. What he told me was everything I had hoped.
The program was real. The people cared. You could earn a good wage, educate yourself, and, most importantly, you could turn yourself into a real person–a person, who pays taxes and has a job. You could become a person with a home.
As soon as my feet hit the pavement on the outside, I signed up. Even if every decision I made in my life had been wrong, I knew that getting myself to The Doe Fund was right.
The people here, they didn’t just see the person I was when I went to jail.
Or even the person I was when I got out. Somehow, they saw the person I COULD be.
And now, here I am. One year later. With money in my pocket. With a career. With a future. With a home.
In a strange way, I’m grateful to the young guy named Richard Norat who went to jail twenty-one years ago. I’m grateful because he didn’t get me killed or locked up for the rest of my life. I’m grateful to my buddy Pete, who’s out there right now, doing great, living a good life, and putting all the hope we had in prison to good use.
And I’m grateful to the people in this room; because people like you are the reason why my hope didn’t die in prison.
This is the first time in my life that I’ve had a bed bigger than a cot. I have a bathroom I don’t have to share with a 12 other men. And this winter will be the first time in my life that I spend the holidays with a turkey at “home.”
I’ve spent the last twenty years on a journey to this moment, where I can hold my head up high and tell you I’ve been educated; I’m working hard and living honestly.
It feels like a miracle, but it’s thanks to very real angels: George, Harriet, The Doe Fund, and all of you. Thank you for helping me get home.