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March 30, 2003
Felon - a Second Chance Graduate

by Dennis Duggan
Stanley Battersbee remembers when the bad times in his life began. "I was in the fifth grade and things weren't going my way. I set my classroom on fire."

His life steadily slid downhill after that. "Yes, it got ugly," says Battersbee, 46, who spent almost two decades locked up in Attica, Sing Sing and Dannemora.

"I was jailed for taking things from people," he says. At gunpoint, at knifepoint, with any weapon I could find.

"I am not proud of my former life," the swift-spoken former felon says.

He also remembers when the tumblers in his brain clicked into gear.

"I was in an isolation cell in the Clinton penitentiary," the result of an altercation with a correction guard.He was serving a 10-to-life sentence for armed robbery at the time. "I was 34. I thought to myself that I would rather be broke in New York City than a millionaire in Attica."

He speaks with precise diction. He recalls being raised with eight other children by his mother in an apartment on Columbus Avenue at 109th Street.

His life was in shards. Still, he managed to graduate from high school and get some credits at Mercy College on 207th Street near Broadway.

"I was taking from people," he says, "but when you take, something is taken from you."

Now, sitting in a conference room in a Volunteers of America building on West 20th Street where he works a second job weekends as a receptionist, he shakes his head. "I can't get those 19 1/2 years back, but I will get the best that I can from the years remaining to me."

Battersbee left prison in May of 2001 and applied to the Doe Fund, a group that shelters and puts homeless people to work. He was accepted in August of that year, given a room and paid to work as a street cleaner.

Part of his pay went toward his rent and part into savings. He worked for the Doe Fund for 18 months and this year got a job with the Fortune Society interviewing ex-cons seeking jobs.

That's why last Thursday evening, in the basement of St. Ignatius Loyola church on Park Avenue, Battersbee was scheduled to graduate from a drug-free work program for the homeless and ex-cons and deliver an upbeat address to 200 other graduates.

This annual commencement is one of the more moving nights in a city always eager to celebrate success. Last year Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke. This year, his homeless-services commissioner, Linda Gibbs, was to give a message from him and give a talk herself. This type of acknowledgement is a big deal for men and women who are not used to being recognized for anything except felonies and misdemeanors.

Battersbee was to be joined in addressing the crowd by Robert Bridgett, a man who began using drugs at 13 and was an addict at 17. Kicked out of his home, he slept in crack houses and worked for neighborhood dealers. He was caught using the drugs he was supposed to sell. He entered a detox program to escape retribution.

Bridgett now has a job with Pitney Bowes, and an apartment.

At one time in his life, George McDonald, who founded the Doe Fund in 1986, wanted to enter politics. That wasn't meant to be. He started paying attention to the needs of the homeless, handing out bologna sandwiches in Grand Central Terminal.

McDonald's slogan is "Work works." The onetime advertising executive with whirlwind energy came up with an innovation - paying his social service clients for their required labor as litter collectors, while randomly testing them for drugs.

"When I started this, people told me that giving money to a crack addict would be like handing them a bag of crack," he says. "But now we've had 1,500 people successfully complete the program and move on to permanent housing and a full-time job."

Each year, the fund holds a dinner at the Hotel Pierre, where it gives out an award named to honor the late Pulitzer Prize-winning Newsday columnist Murray Kempton.

In November, the Murray Kempton award will be given posthumously to Mike McAlary, a former Newsday reporter and Daily News columnist who won the Pulitzer Prize there just a few months before his death from colon cancer.

After his graduation, Battersbee, who has a 26 year-old son who works as a computer operator in Philadelphia, says he plans to get married to a woman he has fallen in love with, Tara Jackson, 31, an administrative clerk with the city's labor relations office.

The two share an apartment in uptown Manhattan and Battersbee says, "I love her honesty."

He says he has a keepsake - two of them actually - from a life that started after he got out of jail.

"I bought a pair of shoes when I got out, and I walked around looking for a job so much that I wore a hole in one of them," he says.

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