oatmeal-053113-06Looking up at his battered face, I longed to understand his experience of the world. I tried to imagine how the twelve-year old he once was ended up in prison? How had he even survived a gunshot to the head? How had he made it past eighteen, much less to thirty-four?

Nearly a year ago, Daniel found his way to Inner City Weightlifting, a non-profit organization located in Boston that serves the harshest of criminals as they make their way to creating a new life after prison. The space and the weights provide a safe environment for them to begin building a fresh start.

The metal detector at the entrance relieves tension and brings down barriers, allowing members of various gangs to bond as they perfect their lifting form, learn personal training techniques, and other skills they can use to earn a living and build a better life.

Puzzled, I wondered how this gentle, humble man before me could ever hurt anyone. Sensing my confusion, Daniel looked me in the eyes, made his hand into a cup, and asked me to imagine this was a bowl filled with grits.

Following his instructions, I envisioned a bowl full of yummy grits, like the ones I had in North Carolina not too many years ago. “I’m imagining,” I said, waiting for his next instruction.

“If I tossed in a few oats, would they change the grits?” Daniel asked.

“No,” I said, searching for his greater point.

“Grits only know how to be grits,” he said, “A few oats aren’t going to change the grits.” He paused as he waited for me to get the full impact of what he was saying, and then added, “That life was all I knew.”

While I quietly processed his words, Daniel shared, “I went to prison when I was twelve for shooting at someone. In that situation, it was what I knew.”

After spending nearly half his life in prison, he found his way to this space, eager to “find positive things to put my attention on,” as he shared. Circling his body with his arms, slowly and deliberately to indicate the space around him he continued with, “You become like the people who are around you. I’m careful who is around me now.”

Through the program, Daniel has learned how to create exercise programs for the public, for people who come to the gym for one-on-one sessions.

“I study every day,” Daniel shared, “and I’ll get my NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine) certification soon. I enjoy learning—physics, math… all of it.”

Lying on the floor near us was Joe, one of the first members of Inner City Weightlifting, and the most senior trainer. With four years of experience under his belt, Joe now reaps the benefits of a steady clientele, and therefore a steady paycheck.

“I make good money doing this, and now I don’t have to worry about whether or not I’ll make enough to take care of things,” he shared.

Good, hard workers, come in many different shapes and sizes, and from a whole variety of backgrounds. The question isn’t “how do I find good people who are hard workers, with positive energy?” The better question is, “How do I create the right environment for people to show up, take risks, innovate, develop their skills, and serve our customers?”

Make the decision to see beyond what’s in front of you and serve the greatness inside your team. Watch as the people around you step up to the challenge and surpass your expectations. Belief is where greatness begins. Do you see the people around you as employees, or people loaded with potential, looking for ways to contribute and grow?

If Inner City Weightlifting can create the type of environment that nurtures optimism and opportunity for the harshest of criminals in Boston, imagine the difference your company can make in your community by creating an environment that nurtures trust, builds skills, offers experiences, and creates hope.