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Nassau DA's group helps others move forward

Lawrence Humphrey of Valley Stream holds his twin

Lawrence Humphrey of Valley Stream holds his twin sons Aiden (left) and Austin Humphrey (eight months) at Kiddie Academy in Lynbrook on Wednesday, December 8. Humphrey was released from Attica state prison in July 2009. His fiancee died two days after giving birth to the twins. Now a single father of four boys, Humphrey continues to look for work after completing COTA's pre-apprentice program. Credit: Sally Morrow

For Lawrence Humphrey of Valley Stream, the Council of Thought and Action serves mostly to settle his nerves, but he has faith it will help him even more over the long run.

Humphrey, 46, was released from Attica on July 24, 2009. "My fiancee got pregnant. She had twin sons in April and died two days later. Here I am, a former knucklehead, crack addict and drug dealer, with this kind of responsibility dropped in my lap, and I've also got 15- and 14-year-old sons."

Finding work, Humphrey said, has been tough. But as a participant in Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice's COTA initiative, Humphrey has completed a pre-apprentice program and has hopes of becoming a heavy equipment operator.

"I'd like to get into the International Union of Operating Engineers," Humphrey said. "I'm upbeat and keeping my nose clean. I'm willing to work hard at almost any kind of job."

The council is Rice's spinoff of her 2007 crusade to remove drug trafficking from Hempstead's Terrace-Bedell area, even giving a type of amnesty to known drug dealers in exchange for ending their criminal behavior and working to better themselves.

So far, 567 people have participated in the 18-month-old council. While some have been rearrested, the majority have stuck with the program or its values, Rice said, though her office did not have precise numbers.

"Society can't just incarcerate its way out of a criminal problem. We're trying to be preventative and help offenders change their thoughts and actions to become more productive citizens," Rice said. "The gist of our movement is voluntary behavior modification."

The council opens its doors to anybody - not just former criminals - who want to better themselves and their community. Members get help with jobs, school, housing and emergency services. Community service is mandatory for members, officials said.

Some describe Rice's initiative as an Alcoholics Anonymous-type group therapy movement with a broad base of community support, but without a "12 steps" plan.

"Remember, it's a 'movement,' not a 'program,' " Rice said of the council, whose members call each other brother and sister.

Members meet for two hours, twice a week, in rented space at the offices of the 100 Black Men of Long Island in Hempstead.

One night late last month, seated around a circle in a rectangular-shaped room, members spoke sequentially, telling of the highlights of their week, good and bad. Assistant District Attorney Risco Mention-Lewis, the group's leader, said the focus is self-awareness and the ability to think before speaking or acting. "We imbue respect and support for each other and, as a result, members have opened themselves to each other in unprecedented ways," she said.

A key is a member's corporate plan of action to help them reach goals, first for the 45 days after joining, then for a longer period and hopefully for a lifetime. Each plan has a corporate board of peer advisers.

One board member for many in the group is Kevin Robinson, a council job developer and case manager.

Robinson, 43, is a former gang member in Freeport who served 14 years in prison for drug dealing and gun possession. He said he began cleaning up his act in 2005, after his then 21-year-old son got life without parole in North Carolina.

"I failed my son and can't make that up to him," he said. "But I still want to help him, and maybe help others even more."

Robinson gets up almost every morning at 5:30 a.m. and texts a comment or a saying to more than 150 members - "Just a little something I think might help them," he said.

Not everyone in the program is a former felon or a former drug user or dealer. Falischa Jones, 32, of North Babylon, said she heard of it when Mention-Lewis talked about it at the Wyandanch Community Resource Center where she works.

"Not long ago I got divorced from my husband after 13 years, making me not the nicest person to be around," said the mother of two young daughters. "My attitude kept my bosses moving me around, and I'm not sure where I would have ended up if COTA had not come along.

"I've learned to think before I speak and act, and that has helped me immensely both at work and at home," she said.

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