By Latisha Catchatoorian
UNC Staff Writer
the Durham VOICE
If anyone knows what a life of crime is like, Dennis Garrett does. He comes from a self-proclaimed background of “gang-banging” and “hustling.” But those days are long over as he helps change the lives of people just like him.
Garrett is the founder and director of Love & Respect, a non-profit organization that helps recovering addicts and ex-offenders stay clean and off the streets. It gives people a second chance.
“I wanted to put together a program for people that are just like me,” Garrett said. “We’re not bad people. We just make bad choices. Somebody gave me a chance, and I wanted to give it back.”
Garrett was born in Durham but raised in Chapel Hill from a low-income background. There was once a time when he says he was in and out of jail like some of the people he has helped. With those days behind him, he says he aims to give people who would not have opportunities otherwise, a chance to change.
“I really believed that it was everybody else’s fault, I didn’t know how to accept personal responsibility,” he said. “I blamed people, places and situations. The police were harassing me, they were following me — but I forgot I was shooting up the neighborhoods. I would blame everybody else.”
Garrett, who considers himself more spiritual than religious, said he was led to find a change in himself. He said he was sick and tired of being sick and tired.
“I was tired of just existing and not living,” he said. “I was tired of being a part of the problem; I wanted to be part of the solution. And today I am.”
Garrett’s positive influence on the community begins in his home, a once abandoned quarter on Angier Avenue. It has since been remodeled by some of his clients. He said the people he has helped have helped to build his home and that they get compensation for their work. He said not compensating them would be taking advantage of them.
“I pay them and they pay me,” he said.
Garrett’s influence on his first-grade son, DJ, is evident as well.
“It doesn’t bother me to have people in my house because if my daddy knows them, then I know them,” DJ said.
DJ, who loves fried chicken and playing video games, said he loves talking to his mom and dad. He said his dad knows when he needs stuff and knows exactly at what time he needs it. Garrett treats his clients much like he treats his own son, with true love and respect.
“DJ is my mini-me. That’s my life; that’s my joy,” Garrett said. “He doesn’t know the old me. He was born in recovery. He goes to meetings and he hears my slogans and repeats them.”
Garrett has a baby daughter, named after his mother. He said he named her after his mother so someone of the same name can see the new him. So his daughter and mother can see the new life he is living and the new life he is helping others create. The changes began on his very street.
“We took a drug-infested quadruplex that was a gang-banged, prostitute ring,” he said. “They used to get fifty-two 911 calls a week. My dream is to uplift myself, others and the community. By taking that quadruplex, it has opened up a whole other element of the community.”
He said after taking that living quarter, they then took some abandoned properties and turned them into recovery houses. He said he lives in this community, that he isn’t just cleaning it up while he stays on the outskirts. He said he lives here; therefore he is a part of the community. He said they are trying to take the whole neighborhood while pushing out the drug dealers one at a time.
“We’re pushing the drug dealers and the gang bangers away, down the street,” he said. “We’re not afraid of them. And we’re not saying that because we’re tough, it’s a matter of respect. They respect what we do. If my clients or consumers violate, they will tell me.”
Garrett said that he wants the little old ladies to be safe. That he wants them to be able to sit on the porch or walk their dog. He said he used to be the one they were afraid of; now they bring him banana pudding.
“At one time I had no respect for myself, let alone others,” he said. “You go from having fifty-two 911 calls a week, that means two police cars, an ambulance and a fire truck are coming. That is a lot of money that is costing this city. This alone has saved the city funds. How do we redirect those funds? We change lives.”
Garrett said that all of the things Love & Respect does are out of pocket. None of their funding comes from the city or federal government.
“City council and government funding does not support what we do,” he said. “They pat us on the back and tell us ‘good job,’ but we’re fighting a war with no ammunition.”
Garrett said that city council member Cora Cole-McFadden does everything she can to help Love & Respect obtain funding, but that she can’t do it alone.
“My wife allows me to take away from our family to provide for the community,” he said. “I don’t want the city to give me a million dollars, but I want them to help me fight this war. It’s evident we have changed our community.”
Ken Dunn and Bernard Effinger are two men in the community who have changed through Love & Respect and with the help of Garrett.
Dunn lived in an abandoned building across from the remodeled quadruplex. He said he was at the bottom of the barrel when he met Garrett.
“I told Dennis I didn’t have a nickel in my pocket but I told him what I wanted,” Dunn said. “He put me in the program that same day.”
Dunn has been clean two years and said the program is about more than just not using drugs. He said it is about changing his attitude, behavior and lifestyle. He said he had a 12-year-marriage, two beautiful children and a career at one of the top electronic companies in the world, but drugs stole it all from him. He didn’t blame the drugs at the time.
“The drug has no boundaries; it doesn’t care who it gets,” Dunn said. “I am truly thankful that I had an opportunity to get away from it. Dennis is my sponsor, director, employer and best friend.”
Effinger said that some of the things he has learned from Garrett have kept him alive.
“I’m just appreciative of him because he showed up when nobody else showed up,” Effinger said. “It just goes to show, you can pick who is real in your life.”
Effinger said he spent 12 years in jail and when he got out he started using again. He said when got out in 2004 his mother died and that he was angry at God. He started abusing again to cover up the pain he felt.
“Coming to an understanding of who Dennis was, was the biggest point,” he said. “Because sometimes I can be real upset at him, but when I look at the realness that he has given me and I look at the things that he is doing in the community, I see the common goal and I see the struggle.”
Effinger said when he looks down the street, right down Angier Avenue, he can see the progress. He said that everyone goes through ups and downs and that we all have problems, but he can stand up today and face them. He said that by trusting the process of the program and his predecessors, he has seen prosperity.
Love & Respect is helping recover the people and buildings of a once torn-up street, all because of the initial work of Dennis Garrett. His love and respect has created an effect that ripples down Angier Avenue, but he can’t do it all alone. He said money in the form of donations from the city, or anyone else, would help him and his clients. It would create a prize worth much more — a chance at a new beginning.
“It’s a great life,” Effinger said. “It’s a good day to be clean.”