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From an ex-con: A message of hope. Be strong, you can change

“Call me,” Carlos “Omar” Alvarez Carrion, 36, urged me, as he walked me to my car in the ShopRite parking lot on Haverford Avenue in Philadelphia on a cold and bright winter’s day. “Nights. Weekends. Anytime.” Because as much as Jeffrey Brown, chief executive of Brown’s Super Stores, has a mission to hire the formerly incarcerated in his 13 ShopRite and Fresh Grocer stores, Carrion also has a mission and he needs me to carry it out.

"Call me," Carlos "Omar" Alvarez Carrion, 36, urged me, as he walked me to my car in the ShopRite parking lot on Haverford Avenue in Philadelphia on a cold and bright winter's day. "Nights. Weekends. Anytime."

Because as much as Jeffrey Brown, chief executive of Brown's Super Stores, has a mission to hire the formerly incarcerated in his 13 ShopRite and Fresh Grocer stores, Carrion also has a mission and he needs me to carry it out.

He wants me to tell his story, because he wants his story to be your story – if you, like him, started in a rough place, wound up in prison, and have come out, wanting to be somewhere else, wanting to be someone else.

"There is hope," Carrion said. "But you have to be strong. You can change. I've changed."

So, here's his message: When you get out of prison, don't give up. No matter if you are homeless, no matter if you think white people are racist, no matter if you are earning so much less in a real job that it's laughable.

In the morning, when Carrion goes to work at ShopRite, his children are in bed, cuddling with their toys. When he gets home from his job managing the seafood department, they run to him, "Daddy, Daddy." These days, he can look to the future, two years out, five years out. He's planning to buy a house. He's trying to figure out schools.

When Carrion was selling drugs, the future could be shortened in an instant, he said, by violence, prison, people whom he owed money to, people who owed money to him, dangerous places, dangerous people.

"I'm at peace now," he said. He can talk to anybody, go anywhere. No one's looking for him. "I guess this what a regular life is supposed to be. "

Carrion doesn't own a business, as Jeff Brown does, so he can't get help anyone by giving them a job.

But Carrion and his fellow formerly incarcerated colleagues at ShopRite, Anthony Jackson and Louis Rivera, still want to extend a hand, through me and through their stories. That's why they spent so much time talking to me. That's why they answered so many questions, often painful, that others might think rude.

Carrion's story began when he was in sixth grade. "I remember the day my mind went to the gutter," he said. His family was poor, living at Sixth and Pike Streets in North Philadelphia's Hunting Park section. Carrion asked his Dad for a dirt bike, and his father said no. "So I started selling dope."

It was small amounts at first. The dealers would give him $60 worth of crack. He'd sell it, turn back $50 and get to keep $10. He moved up from there. It didn't take him long to get caught and wind up in juvenile detention. While there, he hit a security guard and ended up with an aggravated assault charge. Anytime he got out of prison, he went back to the street and sold drugs.

Even now, he marvels at how easy it was to make money -- lots of it and quickly.

Eventually, he wound up at Graterford state prison, sentenced to four to eight years on a myriad of drug charges.

"That was the worst day of my life," he said, remembering the day he was sentenced. "When I went to Graterford, they open the gates and they close them and you hear that sound. The walls is super thick – ain't nobody getting out."

He was transferred to another state prison and served the rest of his sentence there, released in 2006.  He moved to Puerto Rico, where he had family, to cool out. He fell in love and had a son. That relationship fell apart. Later he met and married another woman, his wife, Sandra.

Puerto Rico didn't keep him out of trouble. Carrion, his friends and relatives were actively involved in the drug trade. He said he knocked over a police officer in a car chase, but then police officers caught him and beat him up. They dropped the assault charges on him, he said, and he never pursued a police brutality case against them.

Figuring he wouldn't beat the next arrest, he and his wife decided to leave Puerto Rico, return to Philadelphia and start a new life. He'd go first, get set up and send for her. But to get set up, he had to sell drugs.

"My wife didn't know. I was supposed to be cutting grass," he said.

Eventually, he got enough money to buy her a plane ticket. But his drug selling had to stop. "My wife doesn't play that. She was going to leave me. She's going to church, telling me, `Believe in God, he has a purpose for you.'"

He landed a job in Walmart. He was elated, but crushed when he lost it a few days later after failing a background check. "We needed the money. We didn't have no baby clothes, nothing."

He hustled jobs at a temporary agency. Meanwhile, the family became homeless. His wife and baby slept in a shelter. He slept in the streets. "One night I slept in Hahnemann," in the emergency waiting room.

Someone told him about ShopRite and he got a job in 2013. "They saw my work ethic and liked me." He began work in the seafood department. He caught on so fast that when his manager went on vacation, he took over. More responsibility, but the size of the pay check went up as well. That grabbed his attention and stoked his ambition.

As for the supermarket chain's chief executive, Jeffrey Brown, Carrion initially dismissed him as "just some white dude, a rich white boy. He don't care about nobody." Even when Brown stopped around to say hello, Carrion's suspicions were up. "He's probably still a racist dude. Is he for real? Show me."

Brown showed him. He sent Carrion to seafood manager training and he kept talking to him.

Meanwhile, Carrion's attitude was shifting. Now when he looks at Brown, he said, he sees what he might become -- a manager, an executive, someone who owns a legitimate business, someone not afraid of the future.

"A convict knows how to get over," Carrion said, but when he comes to ShopRite, he's not trying to get over. He wants someone to show him what to do and he wants to learn it, do it and improve. "We're doing the job. We get the job done. The wheel has already been invented. We just help it along."

When he supervises ShopRite employees who weren't convicts, he said, he tones down his language. "Everybody has to be polite."

But with the employees who have come out of prison, as he did, he doesn't hold back. "You don't have an excuse -- that these are white people, that they're racists. They're giving you an opportunity. Stay focused. Don't feed into the same negativity."

When it comes to motivation, Carrion doesn't have to look beyond his family and closest friends. Back in Puerto Rico, shortly after he left, federal drug officers swept in and arrested 47 people, basically his entire social circle. Among those arrested were brothers-in-law, his father-in-law, a brother and a best friend. Most of them are still in prison.

"I could have been right there with them," he said.

Instead, in the North Philadelphia home he shares with Sandra, he's chasing their children, aged 4 and 2, trying to get them into the tub. They're laughing and squealing.

It's joyous pandemonium and Carlos "Omar" Alvarez Carrion is a happy man.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and are among 15 news organizations in the Philadelphia Reentry Reporting Collaborative, a solutions-oriented focus on the issues facing formerly incarcerated Philadelphians. The piece is part of an occasional series— across the city and across platforms—on the challenges of reentry and what can be done about them.