Former convict, gang member became a dad and now a grad
The moment Gustavo Smith held his newborn daughter Alecia for the first time, his life changed.
“It wasn’t really until I held her and looked at how sweet and innocent and small she was, and I was thinking to myself, ‘If there’s any time in my life that I can make a big change, it’s now,’” Smith said.
The birth of Alecia, followed by the birth of his second daughter, Brianna, two years later, sparked a new beginning for Smith that would inevitably transform him from a man with a difficult past and no direction to a college-bound, loving father with a mission.
“I wanted my daughters to have a better life than I did,” he said. “What I had promised my daughters was that I was going to be there for them and take care of them no matter what.”
Smith’s first step in fulfilling that promise was enrolling full time at Guilford Technical Community College in spring 2011. As a single parent, he struggled to balance work, school and raising two baby girls. There were times when he didn’t have transportation and couldn’t afford childcare. He and his daughters were even homeless at one point, living out of his van during his first semester.
But Smith never lost his faith.
“I stuck in there,” he said. “I didn’t want to give up on them. I had too many people give up on me. I stayed determined, and I persevered to the point where I am now.”
Smith graduated Thursday with honors and received an associate in arts degree in pre-major health and pre-major physical education. His goal is to become a community fitness educator, developing fitness education programs for low socioeconomic communities.
“I see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “I feel like I’m starting life again with two baby girls at 41 years old.”
SENTENCED TO 20 YEARS
Life before his daughters, Alecia and Brianna, wasn’t so bright.
Born in Douglas, Ariz., Smith grew up in a broken family and lived in socially and economically disadvantaged areas. He left home at an early age and joined a gang, surrounding himself with drug addicts and alcoholics. At times, he was living on the streets as early as age 13.
“I patterned myself after my environment,” he said. “I really had a hard time trying to adjust to authority figures. That’s what gave me my biggest problem.“
And then one night, a single wrong decision changed the course of his life forever.
Smith committed aggravated robbery of a convenience store, landing him 20 years in a West Virginia prison. He was 22 years old.
“It really didn’t sink in until the judge actually said I was doing 20 flat years in prison; I felt like my heart was going to explode,” Smith said. “The moment of despair was the night when I went into prison. That night was when I started to have regrets.”
IN PRISON WITH DENISE AUSTIN
When Smith entered the prison system, he was full of anger and resentment and had the mentality of “me against the world.”
“I was blaming everything on everybody else but me,” he said.
After constantly fighting corrections officers, he was confined to super maximum lockdown for 3 ½ years and labeled as a level five inmate. “Which is basically saying, ‘I’m the worst of the worst,’” Gustavo explains. “That’s what they labeled me, but that’s not who I am.”
Inside his cell, Smith began to reflect on his life and says he was faced with a choice: Take his own life or make a change.
“That’s when I decided to work out,” he says.
After two years in lockdown, his brother sent him a television that would eventually become Smith’s catalyst for change. Through TV, Smith discovered fitness guru Denise Austin and committed himself to exercise. And thus, a new journey began.
“Early in the morning, I was in the cell working out with Denise Austin,” Smith says laughing. “From there, I just took off on my own.”
Exercise became a motivator for Smith and an outlet for his stress. Physically, emotionally and mentally he started to improve and lost 100 pounds in the process. When the warden took notice of the changes in Smith, he asked if he would train some of the other inmates. So for eight months, Smith led three-hour fitness classes three days a week, teaching programs such as aerobics, yoga and pilates to inmates ages 18 to 65. Before long, his attendance more than doubled and inmates started to see a decrease in their health issues. Smith recalls one inmate in particular who cried as he hugged and thanked Smith; he hadn’t been able to tie his shoes in 20 years. Now he could.
“The difference I made for each person made a difference to me,” he said. “That experience gave me a desire.”
FINDING A JOB AS AN EX-FELON
Ten years after his sentence, Smith went before the parole board a changed man.
“I didn’t want to be part of a gang anymore. I didn’t want to repeat the same mistakes. That life leads nowhere. I don’t ever want to return to that.”
By October 2003, he was released and moved to North Carolina looking for work. But he faced the challenge of finding a job as an ex-felon without any skills.
“Even if they liked me, once they found out I was on probation, there were certain biases and judgments against me,” he said. “I was very depressed, and I had a high level of anxiety. I wanted to do better for myself, and I wanted to do better for my family, but I can’t. It was a frustrating time for me. I just felt like I had gotten to the point where life was basically over. I wanted to just quit.”
Four years later, his first daughter was born. He started driving cabs for a living, but it wasn’t enough money to support his family. He realized he needed to go back to school in order to develop a career path that would give him a sense of security and fulfillment.
“I had the want, but I didn’t have the direction; that’s what I got from GTCC,” he said.
A College Study Skills course (ACA 118) that he took in his first semester made him reflect on what he wanted to do with his life, he said, and made him realize that the one job he enjoyed most was being a physical fitness trainer in prison.
“I wanted a career that I loved doing,” he said. “That class really helped me make a plan. I know the benefits of exercise. I know how it energizes you, how it motivates you. I want to make a difference because I know how much of a difference it made for me in prison.“
HOMELESS WITH TWO LITTLE GIRLS
Smith’s first semester was the toughest, caring for his two girls while attending school and struggling financially. For two months, he and his daughters lived in his van. Both girls were still in diapers. He was bottle feeding one and potty training the other.
“That was a low point,” he said. “I was still going to school, still making sure I took them somewhere to make sure they bathed. Even during the time we were going through that, anyone who looked at my daughters could not see the kind of living arrangements (we had). They didn’t even know we were homeless.”
During that time, he relied on the kindness of strangers who extended a helping hand. His cab customers who grew to know him and his girls would sometimes invite them for dinner or let them sleep in a spare bed for the night. He became friends with a few employees at local restaurants who offered him free food.
When Ednalyn Hurley, a counselor at GTCC, discovered that Smith and his family were homeless, she made a few phone calls and pooled together resources to secure housing for Smith and his daughters. For eight weeks they stayed at a Greensboro hotel until an apartment finally came through with the Greensboro Housing Authority. Hurley also worked with Smith personally to make sure his family had food, clothing and childcare and connected him with resources in the community to assist him in those areas.
“She’s been a big support to me here at GTCC,” Smith said of Hurley.
“It wasn’t anything that I did; he did all the work,” Hurley says. “He just needed some guidance. I was just a conduit to make those things flow and happen in his life. He tries to give me all the credit for all these things I’ve done to help him, but he doesn’t realize how much he has helped me.”
Since Smith first arrived at GTCC, Hurley has seen him grow as a person, a student and a father. Through her encouragement, he joined a single parent support program at GTCC where Hurley says he became instrumental in changing the mindset of some of the single mothers in the group who had negative past experiences with men in their lives.
“Gustavo is the perfect role model. He’s not a deadbeat father. He’s involved in his children’s life,” Hurley said. “He’s very dedicated, loyal and committed to those girls. He has unconditional love for those children. He’s a wonderful human being.” ***
A TITAN’S STRENGTH
As a fatherhood advocate for Triad Baby Love Plus and a community health coach for the NC Healthy Start Organization, Smith uses his life story as a single parent to inspire other fathers to take a more active role in the lives of their children and community. In April 2012, on behalf of the National Healthy Start Association, he spoke on Capitol Hill advocating for continued funding for organizations providing family care services and discussing the impact those services had on him as a single father.
“The bumper sticker on the back of his car says, ‘I Love Being A Dad,’” says Debbie Allison, department chair of Health and Physical Education at GTCC. “But I also believe he loves to succeed as a GTCC student, a single dad, a work-study, a creative thinker and a passionate advocator not only for his beliefs but also for our wellness profession.”
Allison describes Smith as articulate, creative and unique. And he never does anything halfway, especially when it comes to his children.
“I remember as Easter was approaching, he mentioned he needed to find Easter dresses for his little girls, noting their favorite color and style of each one as we talked about the best places to find them. He totally puts them first, staying up all night with them when they’re sick, yet being at school first thing to take a test the next day, meet with his study group and still getting to work on time,” Allison said. “He is so totally taking every opportunity to be positive with this ‘second chance’ in his life.”
In the end, despite all the struggles Smith endured throughout his life, he says it was all meant to happen. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be where he is today.
“I can have a rough day at school and go home, and my daughters will do something crazy, and I’ll just laugh. Or when I see how much they really need me, to see them laying in their own bed with their little restful faces, stuff like that makes me happy,” he says. “I made a difference. I actually feel like I belong.
“I am no longer bound to being a product of excuses, environment or my past. Instead, my GTCC courses, instructors and staff have freed me with a Titan’s strength to find a new direction in life and overcome the gaps that separated my visions and dreams.”
Carla Kucinski is the public information officer for Guilford Technical Community College, Jamestown Campus
What’s next for Gustavo Smith?
BY JORDAN HOWSE
ENTERPRISE STAFF WRITER
HIGH POINT — Now that Gustavo Smith is armed with his associate’s degree in health and physical education, what’s next?
“Right now I plan on going to a four-year college,” Smith said. “I don’t want to stop now. I want to continue to stay educated.”
Smith, a single father of two young girls, said he has to stay local because his oldest, Alecia will be starting school at The Point- College Prep and Leadership Academy.
“I want her to get prepared for college in a way that I wasn’t,” he said.
Smith said the school at the top of the list is none other than High Point University.
“HPU would be perfect,” he said. “I got to drive there for five years and heard what the students said about the school but it is expensive and I don’t have that kind of money.”
Smith also has applied to University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Winston-Salem State University, which has a bachelor’s program for health and physical education.
Until then, Smith said he will continue working with the nonprofits that he works with and being an advocate for fatherhood.
His ultimate goal is to start his own business going into socioeconomically disadvantaged homes and teaching families exercise programs.
“Some families don’t have time to go to The Rush or Planet Fitness so I would teach them fitness in their home,” he said. “I know how important physical education is to stressed out individuals.”
Smith is receiving the Academic Excellence Award from the North Carolina Community College System (NCCS). Each year NCCS awards one student from each of its 58 community colleges the Academic Excellence Award, which recognizes students for their academic achievements.