Ex-convict speaks about the power of choices at Dover

Junior Gonzalez
York Dispatch

Dover Township resident Ron James wanted to find more in common with the approximately 250 seventh-graders than just where they call home.

So he went to next closest connection.

Ronald James, standing left, speaks to seventh graders at Dover Intermediate School about decision-making on Thursday, December 14, 2017.

“I come from good family,” he told the students during an assembly at Dover Intermediate’s auditorium on Thursday, Dec. 14. “I was just like you.”

James spent his formative years in West Philadelphia before moving to a nearby suburb in second grade.

Within 10 minutes, James, 55, was telling students about how he spent a quarter century in and out of prison for a host of crimes: possession and use of drugs, assault, theft and much more.

Students were silent as he told his story of growing from an insecure young boy to a man who’d end up stealing and selling his mother’s wedding band at a pawn shop.

At the end of it all, he said, he faced the consequences of his decisions.

“Whose choice is it?” he said before having the students repeat the question. “Whose choice is it?”

“You’re here. However, a poor choice can have you over there,” he added, pointing to an imaginary — but very possible — path that could alter the course of their lives.

James spoke about how he spent much of his early years being a “people-pleaser” and acting the way others wanted him to — even up to the way he walked and talked.

Instead of telling them what to believe, James said he instead wanted to “speak into” their lives to spur self-discovery within themselves.

He did that by telling his own story.

Drugs: He went through the obstacles most kids go through in adolescence: bullying, making new friends and, increasingly, being introduced to drugs.

But by the time he was the students' age, James said, he was smoking cigarettes and marijuana. Before he knew it, he was drinking alcohol, taking other controlled substances and was addicted to crack.

At many points in his addiction, James was roaming the streets of Philadelphia homeless, constantly in a simultaneous state of high and exhaustion.

“I remember I used to scratch myself to the point I’d start bleeding,” he said.

He asked the students if they know anyone who is addicted to drugs.

A majority of hands rose.

When he asked how many students had been in the presence of drugs, nearly every hand was up.

The questions hit close to home as York County is battling a drug epidemic that has seen at least 93 people die of heroin-related causes so far in 2017, according to York County Coroner Pam Gay.

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“There’s all this talk about Suboxone and Narcan — but they’re after the fact,” James said, speaking about treatments that can reverse the effects of an overdose and help addicts recover.

“Education leads to prevention,” he said.

Choices: Many of his misgivings were exacerbated by outside factors, but he ultimately laid his life journey on the choices he made.

“I was in your seats,” James said, and for a few minutes, he turned the tables.

He cautioned the students that the choices they make — the people they associate with and situations they get themselves into — all lead to consequences.

James adopted this philosophy after reading books on leadership while he was in prison. He ended up writing his own book: "Choices: Lessons Learned from a Repeat Offender," released in 2014.

‘Real’ storytelling: Bobbie Strausbaugh, an instructional adviser at Dover’s Office of Exceptional Children, said James previously spoke to the district's alternative-education students, but she thought his universal message of moral decision making applied to any student.

She added it helps when they hear the dangers of a certain way of life from someone who’s actually lived it.

“We as educators take a safe approach in telling them not to do certain things, but I’ve never experienced it myself. (James) can be real and right on their level,” she said.

Through his self-education in prison, James chose to live a life of sobriety. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dover Township.

He said he is grateful to have made it to the other side of addiction and hopes to continue inspiring students to lead healthy, productive and drug-free lives.

At the end of his presentation, James brought school staff and administrators to the front of the school’s auditorium. He said if the students only took one thing from his presentation, he wanted it to be this:

“My mother saw something in me the same way that each one of these people that stand here before you see in you. They know you’re amazing. They know that you’re going places,” he said. “They’ve been gifted with something, and they’re willing to share it with you.”