FARGO — Former prisoner Lenard Wells, who finds housing and jobs for other ex-offenders, doesn't want to leave any of those men behind.
That's one of many mottos that the housing coordinator for the F5 Project lives each day as his organization that is expanding across North Dakota attempts to help former prisoners "restart their lives."
He believes that anyone can change if given encouragement and support.
For Wells, those who know him realize he goes the extra mile. In recognition of his tireless work, he will be one of three recipients of the Martin Luther King Jr. Human Relations Award on Monday night, Jan. 20, at the annual MLK Day event in the Fargo Theatre.
Wells has been known to answer a call at 2:30 a.m. when one of "his men" is struggling and needs to talk.
He also shows "tremendous tenacity" in reaching out, especially to African American men who want to become a part of the community again, by giving out his cell phone number and regularly checking on "his guys" to make sure they're doing well, according to a nomination for the award by F5 Project founder Adam Martin.
Knowing that recovery from chemical dependencies can be a problem for many offenders, Wells also isn't afraid to tackle those issues. When men tell him they don't want to go to a Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholic Anonymous group on their own, he'll go with them.
Some of the things he does aren't in his official job duties, but in his position Wells isn't afraid to go knocking on doors to try to find jobs or housing for an ex-offender.
One of the most impactful things he can do is to share his story — to show those convicted of crimes that they can change what he calls a "negative life to a positive life."
The 40-year-old shares his story often as F5 Project workers travel across the state to 14 jails and prisons to talk to inmates.
"I've never had less than probably 30 people at one of my meetings," Wells said. He thinks that shows many prisoners want to start a new life and hit the refresh button.
In the Cass County Jail meetings, he sometimes talks to as many as 60 or 70 inmates.
"It excites me. It keeps my blood flowing," he said.
Many prisoners can relate to Wells. After all, the Chicago native who moved to Minneapolis at age 13 with his family was incarcerated five times since he was 15.
The list of convictions is long — burglaries, racketeering, drugs, robberies and assault. The assault conviction landed him in prison for 10 years. If he could change all of that, he said he would, but it's not going to happen.
After Wells' stepdad was incarcerated when he was 14, he said he became the "man of the house" as his older brother was in jail, too. However, things started spiraling out of control as he stole a vehicle and thought he wanted to be a drug dealer and then a gang leader.
When he first was put in a juvenile detention center, Wells said he wasn't scared. He wishes he would have been.
Over those years, with all of his convictions and the bad newspaper articles, he said he "embarrassed and humiliated" his three children, fiancee, and family of four stepsisters, two brothers, and his mother.
When Wells was released from prison in 2015, he started out at an $11 an hour job and also began volunteering with the F5 Project. About 2 1/2 years ago, he accepted a full-time job with the nonprofit agency.
He hasn't looked back.
Co-worker Ricky Pallay said one of the benefits of his job is working with Wells.
"He has such a contagious, uplifting personality," Pallay said, adding that it really comes through when Wells speaks at the jail and prison meetings.
"I call it 'charging up the troops,'" Pallay said. "He has such a passion for what he does."
Pallay, who also serves on the MLK Day planning committee, said he can't think of a person more deserving of the award. "He lives Martin Luther King's dreams every day," he said.
Wells said his family is excited about his award, too.
As for his mother, he said through his work with the F5 Project he "finally brought a smile to that woman's face." She was planning to surprise him Monday night, but because of the weather, his sister from Florida who was going to accompany her couldn't make it.
His children also now have reason to be proud of their father. They include a 24-year-old daughter who goes to North Dakota State University, a 19-year-old son who plays football and goes to Minnesota State University Moorhead, and a 16-year-old son who plays football and basketball for Oak Grove Lutheran High School.
Wells' longtime fiancee, who he plans to marry this summer, is also proud of how far he has come. He said he has a deal with her that he may have to get up at that 2:30 a.m. hour to help one of "his guys."
Wells said it was time for him to give back after he was given a second chance.
"This is my calling; this is where I need to be," he said.
Besides working with inmates, he also works with many at-risk youth through alternative schooling programs and the juvenile detention center in Moorhead in hopes of preventing them from going down the wrong path.
"I would like to see one day that all jails and prisons are youth recreation centers," he said.
For older offenders who have children, he believes they need to be there for their kids, too.
He said they all need encouragement and support, but he reminds offenders how besides hurting themselves, they are also hurting the people that love them.
"I tell them not to give up," Wells said.
"Many tell me they just don't know where to start" when they get released from prison, he said. "They say they don't know another way, but I tell them there is another way."
It starts with a place to live and a job. And then that positive life lies ahead.
"I tell them, 'How do you know you don't want a positive life if you haven't tried it?'" Wells said.
If you go
What: Martin Luther King Day Celebration
Where: 6:30 p.m. at Fargo Theatre.
Awards: Besides Lenard Wells, other award winners are Zamzam Abid, a North Dakota State University student who founded the college's Somali Student Association, and the Legacy Children's Foundation, an organization currently serving 78 students where academic coaches assist and encourage mostly new Americans who fled civil war or ethnic cleansing in their home countries.