Harry Pena

Harry Pena

“I joined a gang at 10 years old. I spent most of my life on the streets. I had my first taste of whiskey. I smoked. I hit teachers in school. I tortured cats.”

“My father mentally and physically abused my mother. I hated him. At 12 years old, I followed him to learn his routes, and on New Year’s Eve, 1979, I decided my father was going to die.”

“I was waiting for him behind a big container garbage can with two of my guys. When I could see him about 60 feet away, I cocked the hammer back, and I heard a voice say, ‘Harry, don’t do it. He’s your father.’”

“I looked over to the guys with me and asked what they said. They said they didn’t say anything. But I heard the voice again: ‘Son, don’t do it. He’s your father.’ I was so scared, I took off running.”

“In the next years, I started getting caught. I spent time in the juvenile detention center. At the time, it just made me more angry. Like, ‘OK, you want to put me away? I’m going to give you a reason to put me away,’ you know? So crazy.”

“When I was 15, my son was born. A lot of what I was doing stopped because I said I will never treat my son the way my father treated me.”

“I began to really see life from a different perspective. From 17 to 24 years old, I worked for the Board of Education, first as a janitor and then a firefighter.”

“At one point, I snapped my ankle. I got workman’s comp, but it wasn’t enough for the lifestyle I was living. That’s when I had an opportunity to get involved in a crime.”

“My train of thought about it was not right. You should know, if you’re offered to get involved in a crime that can possibly give you $150,000 to $200,000, that you’re going to do something big.”

“In the back of the van on the way, for the second time in my life, I heard the voice of God. He said, ‘Son, don’t do it. You’ll be gone a long time.’ And I had that same fear I had as a child.”

“I started saying, ‘Guys, this is a no-go. This is not going to work. The timing is off.’ The driver turned to me with a gun in his hand and he said, ‘You came to do a job and you’re going to do it.’ And he told his brother, ‘If he runs, shoot him.’”

“It was a Brinks truck. We got out of the car, and as soon as we got out, I was ready to run. I took that first initial step to run, and bang! It was a gunshot. I turned around because I thought he was shooting at me.”

“Then everything seemed like it was happening in slow motion. I can still see myself walking in. I look and I see a body on the floor. The guy was screaming, ‘Get the money! Get the money!’”

“We grabbed it, and on the way back I laid on the floor of the van and that was when I first cried out to God. I said, ‘God, I lost my life.’ From there on out, I just lived a life, and my body was cold and I was dead. I was the walking dead.”

“I carried my gun to work, because I thought, ‘If the police come, I’m not going to jail. They’re going to have to kill me.’ After the first week, I left it at home, and that morning in come two detectives. That was the last day I saw the world as I knew it.”

“We were facing the death penalty. And I thought I wouldn’t let them take my life, I’ll take it myself. I was going to take my sheet into the washroom and wrap it around my neck.”

“That was the third time I heard the voice of God. Mind you, I had never read the Bible up to this moment. What I heard was, ‘You cannot serve both God and man. You will love one and hate the other.’ And I knew I had to get out of the gang.”

“So, I went up to the guys and said, ‘I want out, now.’ They said, ‘OK.’ They took me into a cell and they beat me up, and that got me out of the gang. They pushed me out of that cell, into a new cell. I hit the floor on my knees. Somebody slammed the door behind me, and I gave my life to Jesus Christ.”

“From that moment on the jail became my training ground. One of the things I wanted most in my life was to be loved, because I didn’t know love except from my mother. The more I began to experience God’s love, the more I wanted to be good to people.”

“I spent 22 1/2 years incarcerated. I came home in 2014 to a world that, for all intents and purposes, I didn’t know.”

“I found out I couldn’t get a job. I was convicted of first-degree murder and armed robbery. No one would hire me. Or as a matter of fact, one company did hire me and an hour later they fired me when they saw my background.”

“Finally, I met someone who was willing to give me a job. She was a property manager with 300, 400 properties in her portfolio. I don’t know if she took a liking to me when she saw me, but she said she’d give me a job because we were introduced by someone she knew. The lady that gave me that job is my wife today, Yolanda.”

“In 2020 we started Life Impacters. Life Impacters actually started as an idea when I was still in jail, in 2000.”

“When I came home, there were no talks about reentry. Coming home and spending three, four years without a good-paying job, I knew those that were coming home would face the same dilemma.”

“They’ve got to put food on their table. They still have kids. The temptation of going back to dealing drugs will always be there. So how does one pick up the pieces?”

“We have a reentry program to train people for jobs. We’re trying to pilot a program that would get them money to come to school, because you can cut recidivism by making sure when they come home, they can land. We’re also pushing for the Clean Slate Initiative, which makes expungement automatic once you qualify.”

“Right now, there are 4 million individuals in the state of Illinois who have a background. That’s a big impact on the economy. Also, the impact is not just with those individuals, but the children and families of these men and women who have been incarcerated.”

“Life Impacters was born out of pain and longing and wanting to help people. God says to me, ‘Do you love them?’ And I say, ‘Absolutely.’”

Harry Pena
Founder, Life Impacters
Chicago, Illinois

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