Keeping it real in Walnut Hills

Amy Harlow, 24, soaring without anger holding her down.

Amy Harlow, 24, soaring without anger holding her down.


By Mark Curnutte
Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio

WALNUT HILLS — A few weeks ago, in the middle afternoon, Amy Harlow walked along McMillan Avenue toward her small apartment.

“I was high again … smoking crack,” she said. “I remember asking God to just give me something to refocus my energy. I’d been four days without sleep. It was bad.”

About that time a car pulled up to the curb beside her. Harlow stopped. The front passenger window rolled down. From the driver’s seat, Lionell Roberts, the Greater Cincinnati Urban League’s workforce development recruiter, said, “Do you want a job?”

“I just have a sixth sense about it,” Roberts says. “I know who needs help. I just feel it.”

Fast forward a few weeks. Harlow, 24, is enjoying her sobriety, however fragile and new-found. On Thursday, she will join 12 other graduates of the local Urban League’s third Hand Up Initiative SOAR class at Bush Center, 2640 Kemper Lane, Walnut Hills. Mayor John Cranley’s $250,000 anti-poverty grant is allowing the Urban League to take its industry-leading job-readiness class, Solid Opportunities for Advancement and Retention, into Cincinnati neighborhoods. Walnut Hills is the third. Corryville and Madisonville classes already graduated.

Vice Mayor David Mann will attend the Walnut Hills SOAR graduation and has been invited to speak. Graduation will begin at 11:30 a.m.

In neighborhoods too accustomed to gun violence, Harlow inflicted a different type of violence on herself. For one year, she turned to prostitution to feed her drug addiction. She said she advertised on Craigslist, under the category “young females.”

Flowers are the euphemism for dollars.

“I would go on a date for 100 roses,” she said.

Violence — and the anger that afflicts its survivors — is a thread in Harlow’s life, running back to age 8, when sexual abuse started in her home in Indian Lake, Ohio. Social workers removed her from the home when she was 14. Though petite, at 15, as a high school freshman, she beat up a male student, was expelled and sent into the juvenile system. Upon her release, officials moved her to Cincinnati in the care of an agency that specializes in homeless youths 18 to 24 years of age.

In an out of a group home — “I was homeless three times,” she said — Harlow ended up living with an older man, who introduced her to crack and is intense but short-lived high that users say combines the best immediate effects of marijuana and cocaine. The drugs, she said, of course, helped her numb life’s pain.

The man ended up in prison. Harlow ended up with a social service agency in Northern Kentucky, where she got clean for three years and earned a medical assistant’s certificate.

At 23, her time with that agency was up, and, jobless, she filled the empty hours by smoking crack, which at least temporarily numbed the pain and muted the anger.

She attended a SOAR information session in Walnut Hills, where she again met the Urban League’s Roberts.

Roberts, in the League’s shirt-and-tie uniform for men, told his story to prospective students who at least were interested in signing up for the three-week SOAR course.

Football star in high school. Did stupid adolescent stuff. Started robbing drug dealers. Arrested and charged at 18 for aggravated robbery with gun specifications. Sentenced to 9-25 years. Served 10. Stabbed five times in prison. Served long stretch in solitary. Should have been dead three times.

Need more? Got out in 2003. Got my GED right away. Turned my life over to God because there was no other way to explain still being alive. God had a plan for me. Earned an associate’s degree and then a bachelor’s. Went through a program at Urban League and worked in its call center. Have a felony record but was hired by the Urban League. I’m 40 now. I want to be a better man. I want to give back to my community and those around me. I have been so blessed.

“He was so real,” Harlow said later of Roberts’ testimony. “I knew I was in the right place.”

Roberts’ talk about how SOAR graduates more than 80 percent of its students and how more than three of four graduates land full-time work that pays an average first-year salary of $21,625.

Roberts and SOAR trainer Greg Walker — known to his students as “Mr. G.” — gave Harlow the same message: You have to be real. It’s not going to be easy.

“I had been to so many counselors and agencies and this was the first time I felt like the people really cared about me,” Harlow said. “Mr. G. told me I was holding back. He was right. I decided I would put my guard down 100 percent and trust him.”

Walker said he admires her for having the strength, on that walk to and from class, to resist the same people who used to sell her crack.

Harlow speaks now of working to learn how to turn negatives into positives. She knows she needs to keep her mind occupied on positive work. She can’t be afraid of success. She has to deal constructively with the anger that has built up inside of her through the years.

“You start with small stuff,” she said. “Sometimes you have to fall back to get ahead. You have to back away from confrontation. You have to let it go. Arguing or fighting get you nowhere.”

She is wearing dresses and suits now, courtesy of Dress for Success and the Freestore Foodbank. She has tattoos on her right arm and wrist. Across her upper chest, another tattoo reads, “Ride or Die Chick.”

She said she was interested in an Urban League staff member’s referral to Cincinnati Union Bethel’s Off The Streets program for women involved in prostitution.

For now, she relies on her classmates for support. Two of them, Sherwin Waugh, 27, of Evanston, and Antoine Turner, 34, of Over-the-Rhine, both served time in prison. They have felony records but no jobs. Cheryl Burden, 38, of Madisonville, hasn’t worked since 2010 and wants to get into home healthcare in order to support her children, who are 5 and 15.

They are works in progress.

“We’re in this together, like a family,” Harlow said. “We want to do well. We want to see our classmates succeed, too.”

These Companies are Transformational Supporters of the Urban League’s Corporate Heritage Annual Giving Program.