Twenty years ago, a seed was planted—that’s how Fortune ATI counselor Edward Ostolaza describes it.
Edward came to Fortune as a teenager in 1997. He was one of the first participants within a subgroup of our Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) program that focuses on individuals with substance use challenges. Though court mandated to be there, for Edward the program quickly became more than an obligation. “It was a new experience for me,” he says, “I was able to meet people from other communities…I was able to explore the different types of [programs], and I took advantage of it.” One such initiative in addition to ATI was Peer Educators Preventing the Spread of AIDS (PEPSA), in which Edward became one of its first graduates. Through PEPSA, Edward gave presentations in schools about AIDs prevention and safe sex education, which sparked a desire to give back. Nonetheless, though very involved with Fortune, he soon discovered other places outside of the organization where his talent could shine.
With the help of his Fortune counselors, Edward found work as a manager of a local Foot Locker. He had no formal managerial experience but he and his counselors crafted a resume to reflect how life experiences qualified him for the position. “I used those same skills that I knew from the streets,” Edward recounted, “…I never had management experience, but on my résumé I used it. And it worked! It got me at Foot Locker… I was able to take my past, my ugly past, [and] make something that actually helped my present for my future.”
And he did so successfully. For years, Edward worked steadily. After leaving Foot Locker, he went on to open a local Wendy’s. But, despite his employment success, Edward longed to give back—he wanted to help others, just like Fortune counselors had once helped him. “I definitely give it to my counselor, [William Whitaker], at Fortune. He opened up a whole side of me wanting to be more involved with the services side…he opened that up and I thank him for that. Mr. Whitaker, never forget.”
Remembering Mr. Whitaker’s planted seed, in 2010, Edward returned to Fortune for an internship in our Substance Use Treatment Services department. Today, he’s a full-time counselor for Fortune’s ATI young adult participants, and is well on his way to becoming a Certified Alcohol Substance Use Counselor. The youth he looks after, in turn, look up to him. “I’m able to connect with them because they know my past…I let them know what I went through, that I was a [participant] here. You know, and it’s easier for them to identify with me because of the fact that I’ve been where they are.” It’s important for youth to have consistent, and accessible, role models. As Edward relayed, many of his participants, “don’t have their dads around. So, the male role models they have are the drug dealers…they want to gravitate to that because that’s what they see a man should be.”
To counteract this tendency, Edward believes the answer to empowering young adults begins with building more youth programs in communities with high rates of justice involvement experience. “In [reality], gangs are the community centers that these youth have. So if we’re going to, in any way, be able to make a difference, it would begin there.” Edward contributes to these necessary first steps by making a difference at Fortune, mentoring youths in the same position he was in once. He believes deeply in this work—and in Fortune’s mission, which we have cultivated for 50 years now. By consistently advocating for alternatives to incarceration and holistic reentry services, we have helped thousands discover limitless potential. Still, there is more room to grow. As Edward notes, “I think that Fortune has the opportunity to be a leader in the changes in our communities and, as long as they continue to live up to their mission, there are no barriers for them.”
As he helps bring the next generation of Fortune participants closer to achieving positive goals and breaking negative cycles, he reflects often on wise words Mr. Whitaker told him long ago. “My counselor would sit with me…he would tell me, ‘You know, you can’t cry over spilled milk‘. And I would look at him like, ‘What?‘…he [said], ‘Your past is your past. You already did it, you can’t undo it. But what you can do is change today so you can have a better tomorrow.’“
Article written by Aya Abdelaziz