September 10, 2021 by HCDE-Texas
Highpoint School East and Fortis Academy students heard some wise words from a special guest Tuesday. Former inmate Damon West shared his life story with a group of over 50 students during his hourlong visit at Highpoint.
“I thought it was going to be a normal assembly,” said Highpoint student Alexandro Zuniga. “But then he started saying some really inspirational things and telling his back story. Then, he said that he was sitting in some abandoned apartments with his meth dealer. I thought, ‘oh, he was involved in some stuff back then.’ Coming from a white man, you do not expect to hear that.”
A Port Arthur native, West is a product of the Port Arthur Independent School District. He was a star athlete at Thomas Jefferson High School and a starting Division 1 quarterback at the University of North Texas. He has worked in Congress, has been a national fundraiser on a U.S. presidential campaign, and a stockbroker for one of the biggest Wall Street banks in the world.
He’s also been an alcoholic, a drug addict, a thief, and the leader of a crime ring. As a homeless drug addict in Dallas, he became a serial burglar. His infamous crime spree became known as the “Uptown burglaries.” In 2008, Dallas SWAT took him into sobriety at gunpoint. A Dallas jury took 10 minutes to sentence him to 65 years in prison less than a year later.
West was paroled in 2015. Since then, he has become a sought-after motivational speaker, a best-selling author, and a college professor teaching a class called “Prisons in America” at the University of Houston.
“Let my life be an example, a warning of what not to do,” said West.
His message to Highpoint and Fortis students underscored that everyone has the power inside them to change their situation.
“I don’t believe that anybody is beyond reach,” said West. “I think that sometimes we just need to see an example of someone that has been through something serious and has turned it around.”
Highpoint is a school for troubled and adjudicated youth who come from their home schools to address behavior issues. Fortis is Harris County’s first public high school for students recovering from alcohol and drug addiction.
Students listened as West explained how he turned to drugs to cope with unaddressed childhood trauma. He also shed light on the grim reality of prison life.
“I could not imagine what it’s like being in prison for six years,” said Zuniga. “I’ve been here [at Highpoint] since last school year, maybe for three or four months, and I cannot imagine doing anything worse than this. I cannot see myself being in prison for six years like he did. He didn’t have a bad life. It’s crazy to think one bad mistake led to something so life-changing for him.”
West also shared his trademark “coffee bean” story, explaining that he wanted to honor his parents’ request not to join a prison gang. He did so by following the advice of a fellow inmate.
“An older black man, named Mr. Jackson, told me prison was like a pot of boiling water and that we have three choices in life,” said West. “We can choose to be like the carrot that turns soft, weak, and sad. We can choose to be like the egg, which turns hard, mad, and doesn’t let in love. Or, we can be like the coffee bean, which changes the water to coffee because the power is inside the coffee bean. Just like the power is inside of us.”
For Zuniga, the message hit close to home.
“My dad, he was in and out of prison a lot,” he said. “Gangs aren’t always there for you. Growing up, my dad told me the same thing. Gangs and friends won’t always be there, but family will always be forever. And that’s something that hit hard for me growing up.”
When asked if he would make different choices when he transitions back to his home school, Zuniga eagerly shared his plans.
“I was talking to one of my coaches about running track and trying sports out instead of [continuing] to do what I’m doing, smoking, and making bad decisions,” Zuniga said. “I want to better myself.”
West, who is on parole until 2073, hopes that students overcome the obstacles in their lives and don’t follow in his footsteps.
“I’ve been to a place where some of [these students] may end up, and I want them to know that no matter what they do, the past does not define them.”