24 May GRACE STORIES: Tommy Atchison
The very first time I laid eyes on Tommy he was in the City of Faith kitchen with his red 10 Fitness shirt that read “trainer” on the back. He had a mega-watt smile and I knew right away that this guy was going to make it. He had already been at City of Faith for several weeks and I had not met him before this. As I have said many times, those who work the program the best are usually those whose names I never remember. Not having heard of Tommy before that moment was a good sign.
That meeting was twelve years ago and Tommy has continued to have success at almost everything he touches. He made the decision that his former path would not be his destiny. Read Tommy’s story in his own words and just try to tell me there is no such thing as a second chance.
TW: I’m so happy you’re here!
TA: It’s good to see you. It’s been a minute.
TW: So we’re just going to have a conversation. When you tell your story, how do you like to start?
TA: I’m brief. So if you want details you’re just going to have to ask the questions. I’m here to answer them. But to start, I usually just think back to why I made so many mistakes. Why did I choose to run the streets? Why did I choose to hang out with the people I hung out with instead of staying in school? You know? Because my life would’ve been a whole lot easier. Then I fast forward to now….I mean, I was a nerd. Who wants to be the nerd? Who wants to be the smart guy? I should’ve been doing my homework instead of going to parties. I should’ve stayed in school.
TW: So you did that to fit in?
TA: Yes. Definitely.
TW: I can see that but I can also see you being the smart guy.
TA: I mean I was! If everyone was smoking cigarettes, I’d have a toothbrush in my pocket. I love my teeth. I would not smoke a thing without brushing my teeth. Just little things like that.
TW: Tell me…what started you down this road or how old were you when you first started interacting with the criminal justice system?
TA: 11 years old. Bored in Oklahoma and I stole a car and a truck. One week I stole a car and the next week I stole a truck. I drove the truck into a cornfield because it had a 350 rocket in it. You know I’m a little kid and I can’t handle that much power. The guy didn’t really press charges but that ended up with me having to go to a little camp for the summer and I was on probation until I was 18 in Oklahoma. That was my first interaction.
TW: You were on state probation in Oklahoma from ages 11-18? Did you get in trouble during those years?
TA: Oh yes. Of course I did. I would cross the bridge into Arkansas and that’s when I started going in and out of the system. Between the ages of 11-18. That’s when I started running with my older brother’s friends. Up until I was about 13 I wasn’t allowed to hang out with them but you know what’s funny? I had been to prison probably four times before my brother ever went to prison the first time.
TW: Tell me what brought you to federal prison?
TA: Drugs. I caught a drug charge in 2001 and got ten and a half years. I think I ended up doing eight and a half or nine. There were a lot of us in that round up and the reason it went federal is because in the state, you get two and a half months good conduct time for every year. If it had been a state charge I would have been out in about 2 or 3 years and they were like, “nope. We’re tired of y’all going in and out of the system so we’re just going to sit you down for a little while.” And that’s what they did.
TW: This is interesting to me and I’m asking everyone this question: Day one. You’re looking down at ten and a half years, what’s going through your mind?
TA: How am I going to do this? That’s it. I did not know how I was going to do this. I had never had this much time. It’s the same mentality in the feds as the state. You’ve got hooch in there, you’ve got marijuana, you’ve got everything you want and I was eating like crazy. That helpless, hopeless feeling. My health started getting bad. I was eating so much junk like cakes, spam, crackers and potted meat. This caused a kidney stone. I didn’t know what was wrong but that is what started me on the health path.
TW: Were you depressed?
TA: Look. Nothing but depressed. When I went to court. When I got that time…hold up… before I forget, let me tell you what made me so angry. I was in court right? Getting ready to get sentenced and wondering if I can get a bond. The guy who went before me got caught with child pornography on his computer right? They gave him a bond and told him he can’t have any digital devices, no internet, nothing. I come up and I hear, “you are a menace to society. You will not get a bond.” I had never sold drugs to kids but listen…. That right there woke me up. I mean, really. Woke me up to the system. I’ve been in and out of the system but I had never seen it like that in my face. So they gave me my sentence, took me back to my cell and I just broke down. Cried like a baby. Just completely heart broken. I didn’t cry because I was locked up. I cried because all I could think was, “when I get home, my kids will be teenagers.” I was going to miss all of that. It wasn’t the length of time so much as it was just the thought of not being there for them.
TW: Let’s fast forward a little bit. The Tommy I first met was a health nut and probably in the best shape of his life. Tell me a little bit about that journey.
TA: I had been in a federal prison in Louisiana and didn’t really have access to much weight equipment but when I was transferred to Texarkana, they actually had weights and that’s when I started meeting guys who had the NFPT certification. You could get that in there. A lot of the guys who had been there for a while had a lot of nutritional and fitness books and I read everything. Everything. That’s what got me into a moderate understanding of it. I applied the program to myself and just took off with it.
TW: Did this become a way to pass the time? What year was this?
TA: Oh most definitely and that was 2004. I also worked inside breaking down computers you know, taking the hazardous stuff out.
TW: Ok. Let’s talk about your coming to City of Faith. What was it like when you heard you were coming?
TA: Oh I was elated. I was getting out and I was going to see my family. Yeah I was happy. But listen. I had a good head on my shoulders. By the time I got to City of Faith, I was straight. I already had my social security card, I had already sent off to have my driver’s license reinstated. I knew I wanted to go to school, I just didn’t know where. I got my personal trainers’ certification first before I went to school. I had all of that ready. Day one. I immediately got a job at the gym.
TW: Was your time at City of Faith a positive experience?
TA: It was! But listen. Day one. True story. Everybody said, “stay away from Ms. Williams. Just stay away” and then I finally meet you and I’m like “what are you talking about? She just wants you to do right!” (Tommy is belly laughing at this)
TW: But you never took the easy way did you? You started at the bottom I’m sure making minimum wage. The fast money? Did that ever call out to you?
TA: Facts. The very bottom. And yes, of course it did but those things, you know, they have their season. Maybe some of the guys, when they get out, have homeboys who could give them 10-15,000 dollars to get them started but I didn’t have that. I knew though, that whatever I wanted, I could get it with my mind and my hands the right way. All of the money I’ve made in the past 10 years far surpasses any drug money I ever made. The thing about it is, it doesn’t come with any consequences. I don’t have to constantly be looking over my shoulder. I can sleep at night. I think you have to get your mind made up to think, “I just don’t want those problems anymore.”
TW: Tell me about the moment you made up your mind. Tell me your “aha” moment.
TA: In 2002, my door had been kicked down twice. The first time it was the state doing it and the second it was the feds. That second time, I was asleep with my 15 month old daughter when these men with guns come in and wake us up. My daughter and I raise up to find a gun in our faces. When they put me in the back of the car, that’s when I decided, “no more. This will not happen to me again. These people will never have to worry with Tommy ever again.” That guy could’ve shot my daughter!
TW: I don’t know that everyone has a moment like that Tommy, waking up with a gun pointed at them? But I do know that maybe some have, at the very least, had something as frightening and that still isn’t enough to make the change.
TA: That’s right.
TW: What can we do for those people?
TA: Number one, pray. Pray for them and number two, keep encouraging them. I have family members who are still in that lifestyle but I can’t afford to be around them. It’s not that I think I’m better than them it’s just that I’ve got so much to lose. I just hope they have their “moment” where they can make that decision. And honestly, a lot of them have had that moment, they just choose to ignore it but I try not to give up on them because a lot of people didn’t think I’d be where I am today either. Don’t get me wrong, I still like nice things it’s just that now I can either pay for it or wait for it. I don’t need it right now quick quick. They don’t need it right now quick quick either.
TW: Does your mama look at you and see what I see? I bet she spent hours praying for you.
TA: Oh most definitely. She’s very proud.
TW: Ok. Let’s end this conversation with you telling me something you just need people to know.
TA: I saw so many older men in prison who were never going home or would be in their 70’s or 80’s when they got out. I knew I did not want to be that guy. There is absolutely nothing worth bragging about when it comes to the street life and the end results of it. I would rather work a 9 to 5 job than spend another day in jail. I would rather go to my kid’s softball or soccer games than hang out in the streets. I am done believing the “lie.” We have to get it how we live or get it out of the mud. I live in order to be available for my kids and loved ones and the only mud I am digging in is to make mud pies with my little girl.
Shortly after Tommy released from City of Faith in 2009, he was promoted to manager of 10 Fitness here in Little Rock and opened a 10 Fitness gym in Missouri. This he did while also obtaining an Associates Degree from Pulaski Technical College. He later earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Information Technology from Arkansas Tech. He now utilizes that degree with an outstanding job which allows him to work from home and care for his children.