"I was the guy who needed a project like this," says Dennis Avila.
Avila joined other second-chance supporters at the inaugural Second Chances 5K Run/Walk in Colorado Springs in the spring of 2016. Sponsored by Prison Fellowship®, the annual 5K raises awareness of the "second prison," the harsh reality of legal barriers and social stigmas that returning citizens face.
A NEW PATH
As a drug dealer in his early 20s, Dennis was raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars at the height of his game. He told the Colorado Springs Gazette that semi-trucks loaded with drugs would enter his city, one by one, while he watched.
It seemed like a solid gig until he was caught. He went to prison in 2003.
His time behind bars turned into a surprising "two-year discipleship," he says. There, at perhaps his lowest point, Dennis found God. When his drug suppliers wanted to reel him back into the business, he refused.
But on his new path, he faced a new set of challenges.
"I got to experience how hard it is to get back into the swing of things once you've been convicted as a felon and done time in prison," says Dennis.
THE SECOND PRISON
For the 65 million American adults—one in four—with a criminal record, that theme is all too familiar. Many people find hope behind the walls, but that hope is hard to maintain in the face of widespread stigma and legal restrictions.
For Dennis, this meant working difficult jobs with very little pay and no retirement plan. A long way down the road of struggle and persistence, he would start a nonprofit ministry called HEAT, Inc.
HEAT—Healing, Edifying, Affirming, Teaching—exists to make meaningful music and promote character, spiritual growth, and leadership development. He is now part-owner of three local businesses as well.
Dennis is thankful for his new life, but he says his past mistakes still haunt him. He envisions a future where people with a criminal record have a chance to start over, support their families, and give back to their communities.
"If we're going to get the recidivism rate down," Dennis shared at the 5K in 2016, "and we're going to allow people a fair chance to get back into the community and carry their own weight and to be successful when they get out … a program like Second Prison Project is vital."
SECOND CHANCES 5K DENVER
Dennis is slated to be a rally speaker at the Second Chances 5K in Denver this April. He hopes that others will take up the cause and share his dream—the dream that more men and women would be allowed the chance to walk out of prison and hit the ground running.
If you would like to sponsor, register, or volunteer for the 5K in Denver, you can get started here. You can also check out the Second Prison Project, a campaign of Prison Fellowship, to learn more about supporting second chances.