He works with at-risk Wake students to keep them out of jail and on a successful track

Sean Ingram with students at the Sean Ingram Academy. The school works with Wake County public high schools to help at-risk students. Ingram says 85 percent of the students who come to the academy graduate high school.
Sean Ingram with students at the Sean Ingram Academy. The school works with Wake County public high schools to help at-risk students. Ingram says 85 percent of the students who come to the academy graduate high school.

Sean Ingram, 41, will tell you he went from poverty to prison to posterity. Today, he works with at-risk kids in the Wake County Public School System and recently partnered with the Raleigh Police Department as its juvenile diversion provider — all through his non-profit, The Sean Ingram Academy.

Q. What were some of your challenges growing up in Wilson, N.C.?

A. I was raised with my grandmother; we lived in severe poverty. Even until I was 10 years old, we had an outhouse.

A lot of my trouble stems from that poverty aspect — of not understanding or being angry at being so poor and then just watching my grandmother struggle. As I got older, I tried to figure out ways to help her, feeling like I had to be the man of the house. Unfortunately, the help that I sought just came from the wrong influences that I had at that time in my life — whether it was stealing or trying to sell drugs, just putting myself in the wrong situation to try to do right. When I was 25 years old, I was convicted of armed robbery and served five years at Butner Federal Prison.

ingram prison.jpg
Sean Ingram served five years at Butner Federal Prison for armed robbery when he was in his 20s. Now, Ingram partners with the Raleigh Police Department to help divert juveniles from the criminal justice system. Courtesy of Sean Ingram

Q. How did you get a fresh start and stay on track once you were released in 2008?

A. I knew it was going to be a struggle, so I always believed that ownership — of myself, first of all, ownership of my beliefs, my talents, my gifts — I was going to put all my eggs in one basket and bank on me. It was a very hard struggle, especially getting out and trying to get a job and having three felonies on your record, being denied all the time.

Q. How did you get your first job?

A. When I was in prison, I took an HVAC class. A counselor of mine promised if I took this class I would never have to worry about coming back to prison for lack of money or lack of a job. I took a bet on him. When I got out, a company called Watson Refrigeration gave me my first chance. I started making minimum wage. Eight years in that HVAC world, I went from $7.25 an hour to $20 an hour. It was a mindset of working hard, strapping up my boots every day and learning as much as I could and working as hard as I could to prove myself.

Q. How did you segue out of the HVAC arena to what you’re doing now?

A. Writing has always been my passion, my gift and my love. Fortunately, for me, I had books before I even went into prison. I was a writer before I went into prison. I used to go back to the school system and just help with the classes — creative writing classes and things of that sort. I was truly blessed to be making $20 an hour, but that wasn’t my career goal or my focus.

My focus was my academy I’d always dreamed of building. The school system thought I had a real gift with underprivileged kids. Then it became me working with the lower 25 percent of the Wake County Public school system. I work now with all 28 high schools within the system.

Q. What’s your role with the Raleigh Police Department?

A. I take all the kids as they’re referred. If a kid doesn’t go to jail, he or she actually comes to our program. The police do the paperwork. Once the paperwork is done, the kids don’t have that charge on their record at all.

Q. You employ a licensed social worker and a peer counselor; how do you all three work together to help kids stay on track?

A. I have a national certification in aggression replacement training. I also have my mental health first aid certification. My primary job as a mentor is to build a relationship, gain trust, then serve as a support system … strategizing a proper path to their success.

Lasharta Pearson is our licensed social worker and clinical counselor. Her responsibility is initial intakes and to choose the proper programming and mental health services if needed.

Omark Best is our peer support specialist. His responsibility is to stay in constant contact with each youth. He also makes sure they have transportation to and from any appointments or services.

Q. What’s been the result?

A. We have a great outcome with our programs. A lot of our kids actually go to college, get jobs; we have kids now in colleges playing football. All don’t make it, but 85 percent of our kids graduate high school and go on to be successful. It’s been a true blessing.

Know someone who would make a good Tar Heel of the Week? Send nominations to tarheel@newsobserver.com.

Sean Ingram

Born: February 26, 1977; Wilson, N.C.

Resident: Raleigh

Family: Married, two daughters

Hobbies: Cruises, movies.

Organization: The Sean Ingram Academy, www.seaningram.info

Awards: Recipient of the International Poet of Merit Award by the International Society of Poets (1997)

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