Hard road to recovery after crime setback
The Kansas City Star
Jerry Whitlock called with an irresistible invitation to meet.
I hadn’t seen him since he graduated in 1999 from Washington High School in Kansas City, Kan., where I studied with his class from their freshman through senior years to learn what it was like to be a teen and teacher. By 1998, Whitlock was in ROTC, planning to enter the military.
But when we sat down at a McDonald’s Restaurant in Pittsburg, Kan., Whitlock, now 31, spoke of how hard times had hit him. “Plans are meant to be changed,” he said.
The military plans had collapsed. “I hit a lot of bumps since high school. A lot has happened in my journey — a lot.”
Whitlock first landed a job at a printing company in Lenexa, but he also started hanging out with friends who got him into trouble with the law. They got caught in 2000 breaking into cars in Johnson County.
For a first offense, he was put on diversion. That was revoked 2002 when he was busted for possession of drug paraphernalia.
He did 40 hours of community service and paid $4,000 in fines and restitution. But for five years he had to live with a felony on his record.
The military wouldn’t take him. “It’s hard in this world to get a job with a felony,” said Whitlock, who has an 8-year-old daughter.
“I was putting in applications all the time.” Like a lot of people with convictions, he had to settle for work in the cash only, under-the-table economy, working in home construction in Tennessee.
But it wasn’t stable. The guy who hired him skipped without paying him. “I lost everything and had to move,” said Whitlock, whose arms are freckled and hair is crew cut.
While living with his older brother, he was hired as an overnight manager at McDonald’s in Johnson City, Tenn. But he also sold plasma for extra money from 2002 to 2006 until told he tested positive for hepatitis C.
Two years later, after further tests, a doctor discovered he didn’t have the disease. At that point, he tried to go back to his high school dream of entering the military.
He was almost in when a records check turned up the felony, and that dream died.
In 2009 he returned to the Kansas City area to be closer to his daughter. But finding work in the bad economy was awful even after the felony was expunged.
Whitlock became homeless, sleeping in his car. He was hospitalized for depression. Olathe church members intervened, helping him through difficult days.
He moved to Pittsburg, where he got a job at a tire place and later at McDonald’s. His car died so he initially got around the small southeast Kansas town on foot until he got a bicycle, which he rides everywhere now.
After a half-year at McDonald’s, Whitlock was recruited for a job as a furniture mover. Now he’s a customer service representative for a furniture store, proudly wearing a white shirt with the Aarons Sales and Lease company logo in blue lettering.
“I love my job,” he said. He’s making a better salary and is leasing a house of his own instead of depending on others. “It feels like everything is looking up.”
At McDonald’s, Whitlock introduced me to his fiancé, Marti Emerson. They met while both worked at the restaurant. Her family has embraced and welcomed him.
Whitlock was raised by his aunt and didn’t know his real father until he was a teenager. “For once in my life, I feel like I’m part of something good. It’s amazing.”
Emerson, who has two kids, said Whitlock is a great guy. They plan to marry in 2013, in Las Vegas.
“He’s a hard worker,” she said. “He’s determined. He treats me really, really well.”
Motivated by his daughter, Whitlock is involved in a charity event to raise money for needy children for Christmas. “I want to have an impact on someone’s life,” he said.
“I want to be remembered. I always wanted to put a smile on someone’s face.
“If you’re smiling, you’re not thinking of hard times, thinking of sadness.”
That’s a good plan going forward, these many years after Washington High School.
To reach Lewis W. Diuguid, call 816-234-4723 or send email to Ldiuguid@kcstar.com.