Joseph Byrd followed his two grandchildren through a playground at Wyandanch Park Saturday, pointing and clapping when they discovered hidden eggs scattered about.
The hope of finally experiencing moments like this was what helped the Wyandanch man get through a 30-year prison stint for homicide. He doesn’t want his grandchildren to make the same mistakes, and that was the theme surrounding the inaugural Wyandanch Council of Thought and Action (COTA) Community Easter Egg Hunt.
Byrd joined COTA, an offender support group that focuses on decreasing recidivism and helping individuals become productive citizens, in 2012, shortly after being released from prison.
“COTA is a movement we’re trying to get out to the young people who are heading towards trouble,” said Byrd, 53. “I share the story of the mistakes I made and how it cost me the best years of my life. I just don’t want anyone else to go down the path I did.”
Byrd enjoyed watching his grandchildren Jadon Pierre, 6, and Trinity Pierre, 9, find the plastic eggs, their eyes lighting up when pieces of candy spilled out of them.
“COTA changed my life,” said Byrd. “When I got out [of prison], I couldn’t find a job. But COTA helped me get hired by Albanese, a construction company in Garden City. I started as an apprentice and now I’m site coordinator.”
COTA, created by Risco Mention-Lewis, the deputy police commissioner of the Suffolk County Police Department, has two other locations, in Hempstead and in Bellport.
Mention-Lewis, a former Nassau assistant district attorney, created COTA as part of Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice's Hempstead initiative. It began in 2008, and now more than 1,000 men and women have joined COTA to seek help finding jobs, educational opportunities, housing and emergency services. While most in the program have a criminal record, many have faced only minor charges. She said around 100 Wyandanch COTA members helped to make the hunt possible.
“I think this is wonderful. It’s excellent for the kids and for the community,” said Anita Steadman, 55, a special education teacher at Milton L. Olive Middle School in Wyandanch, as she watched her niece Shania Mohan, 2, throw neon-colored eggs into her floral basket. “We’ve never had something like this. Look at these kids. They love it.”
Mention-Lewis said the idea is for past offenders to give back to their community, redeem themselves and pay back what they took through community service projects.
“Just because you went to jail and did wrong, doesn’t mean that you can’t give back and be better tomorrow,” she said. “We’re here, we’re strong and we’re going to continue to do exciting things for the community to make sure the younger generation knows they don’t have to do wrong, they can do right.”