Not-for-profit offers hope and opportunities for ex-offenders.
by Jerry Davich
Roger Hayward had just returned home from another drunken bender.
He forgot about his dog left alone in the apartment for three days. He came back to a sobering mess. His poor dog defecated all over his home and urinated on his pillow.
“I got mad, really mad,” Hayward recalls of that day in Pennsylvania a decade ago.
He repeatedly hit the dog, so badly that Hayward hit rock bottom. He felt it in his soul, or what was left of it. The dog also felt it, running away to hide from his broken master.
Hayward melted into an emotional mess. He fell down and landed smack on that same soiled pillow. He knew its symbolic consequence. He couldn’t get any lower.
“I had nobody, man, nobody,” he recalls with a sigh. “That was my reality.”
His first recollection of drinking booze was sneaking guzzles from his stepfather’s beer.
“It made me feel special, I guess, because I kept doing it,” he says.
By age 13, he had to leave an abusive home. He bounced around like a wayward pinball in a damaged machine. He slept on a beach, in hallways, at a frat house, a Moose lodge, and inside a Salvation Army donation bin.
School was a word in a textbook, not part of his life. He never graduated, only later getting his GED. He worked more jobs than an entire classified section of a newspaper.
Hayward sold everything and anything to make a buck, even if he had to steal everything and anything to do so. He was a user. He used booze. He used drugs. He used pills. He used people. “I was a son of a gun, let me tell ya,” he says.
Hayward, however, always had a dog in his life. They always missed him. Always loved him. Always forgave him.
That day he hit bottom, Hayward sobbed uncontrollably on a pillow drenched in dog urine. His wounded dog emerged from hiding and instinctively ran to him. The dog tried lifting Hayward’s arms to help him back up. Hayward felt unconditional love for the first time in his life.
“I believe that was my God moment,” Hayward says, breaking into emotion. “He loved me enough to have that dog show me love when I needed it most.”
Hayward immediately called a pastor friend who lived nearby. “Please come and get me,” he told him.
The pastor picked him up, took him in, cleaned him up. Finally, he felt reborn.
In 2009, he was working as a “bird dog” for investors to buy real estate properties on the cheap. Hayward, who always had a skill for construction, stumbled onto a dilapidated property in Gary.
“I didn’t know Gary, Indiana, was even on the planet,” says Hayward, who was born in Boston and sports a beat-up New England Patriots cap.
Near that property, he saw a man drinking “a 40” on the front porch. It hit home. He broke down again, this time through an epiphany.
“This is where God wanted me to be,” Hayward says as a police siren blares in the background.
Hayward has served several stints in jail, starting in his teenage years. He knows what it’s like to serve time and waste time. He knew right then he had to create “It’s Gary’s Time.”
The first-of-its-kind, not-for-profit program helps provide skills, job opportunities and hope to ex-offenders attempting to reenter society after serving behind bars. Mentoring, facilitating, teaching, lecturing, preaching, whatever it takes. Hayward knows where they’ve been and where they need to get to.
“He’s the real deal,” says one ex-offender.
Hayward has helped dozens of broken men find the missing pieces in their life. He’s their eyes, ears and mouthpiece.
“I’m their hands for what they don’t know to reach for yet,” says Hayward, who possesses a serious gaze, a boisterous laugh and working man’s hands.
His rotating crew of ex-offenders rehabs houses and performs community service projects in Gary. When the city needed to board up abandoned houses following a serial killer’s confessions last fall, Hayward volunteered to help do the work.
When restorative work needs to be done, whether for the city or an ex-con’s life, Hayward volunteers. He was honored as the 2014 Indiana Volunteer of the Year by the Indiana Criminal Justice Association.
“It’s only by the grace of God I’m here to do this and help these men,” he says.
Yes, he cried when accepting his award. And yes, he still has a dog by his side.