This fall Cary Hendricks and his new friend Shawn Perez enjoyed a meal around the table at Laity Lodge Family Camp. As the two talked, Shawn opened up about his story—the jaggedness of his past and the source of genuine hope for a future.
Shawn, along with his wife April and youngest son Daniel, came to Family Camp for the first time by way of the House of Faith/LLFC Parenting University partnership. He admitted he was leery of making the trip. But by the grace of God and the encouragement and support of his brother Julian and sister-in-law Lori, he is working to embrace a new life and new experiences for himself and his family.
As Cary and Shawn talked, Shawn recounted the youthful hope of a promising visit he made to the University of Utah just after graduating high school. That hope was short lived, though, as his story took a sharp turn. “My outlook on life wasn’t like a normal kid’s,” said Shawn. “It was more like gangs, drugs, and making sure everybody knew who I was.” The harsh environment and lifestyle he was navigating at the time overtook him. Just one week after returning home from the Utah visit, Shawn made several bad decisions that sent him to prison for the next decade of his life.
When Shawn got out, he slid back into the lifestyle he had previously known. And within just nine short months, he returned to prison—this time Federal—for another 12 years.
While he learned many valuable trades and life lessons during those 22 years behind bars, Shawn is keenly aware of the fact that he has been incarcerated for nearly all of his adult life. “It’s hard to come out into this world and feel comfortable and social—to feel like people aren’t looking at you thinking all the wrong things. To remember that you’re not seen just as a menace to society but as someone who has another chance.”
It’s been 18 months since Shawn was released, and he is at another crossroad. He can go back to the way he was living. Or work to keep his family and try things a different way.
“If it wasn’t for my brother, Julian, I think I’d still be in prison,” said Shawn. “He invited me to work and live with him to save some money.” Julian also invited Shawn to House of Faith and the Parenting University classes, but Shawn didn’t think he was ready. He wasn’t comfortable being around groups of people. But his brother persisted saying “I’ll do anything for you, man. Just do this one thing for me.” That struck Shawn at his core. “Julian’s all I got left of my family. Both my parents are gone. My younger brother and sister. My grandparents. He’s all I got! I need to do this for him.”
And so Shawn begin attending House of Faith and the Parenting University classes.
He went into it fully expecting to feel out of place, but he was surprised to find that there were people like him there—people he could relate to who have had some real struggles in life. And so he started to interact and share. “And I felt good about it because I wasn’t an outcast.”
After being in the system for so long, Shawn had really forgotten how important spending time as a family is. “I’ve never been a loving person. But I got back around April, my kids, and my brother’s family, and I felt something different.” Having little parenting experience outside of prison walls, he initially felt ill-equipped to talk with others about being a parent. But he knew it was important with three kids of his own. And Shawn’s kids have had everything to do with the changes in his life. “I’ve got my youngest, Daniel who has autism. My adult daughter. And my grown son who is beginning to stare down the same road I did,” said Shawn. “I know that for me to preach to them about doing right, I gotta’ do it first. So they, my older son especially, can see and know that if I can do it, it’s not too late for them.”
The Parenting University classes opened Shawn’s eyes. He found answers to questions that he didn’t even know he had. Questions about himself. Questions about his role as a dad. And slowly he began to overcome his skepticism of being with people as he engaged with a group in a way he never thought he could. “I had a chance to learn from other parents’ experiences and I could offer some of my life perspective saying ‘this is what it’s like for your kid. I used to be that kid!’”
Shawn reflected, “I never recognized how much God played a role in my life until this past year. He kept blocking me right and left from all the things I had been doing before.” He went on, “I’ve started to see all the blessings He has given me—my wife, my kids, my brother and his family.” And turning his attention toward the Canyon wall, Shawn said, “I’m out here [at Family Camp] looking up at these trees and the birds flying. That represents freedom to me—coming and going when you want. Seeing the smile on my wife and son’s face. Seeing them entwined with other families! That’s just a blessing, man. You don’t have those things when you’re in trouble all the time.”
Shawn hopes his older son and others can really hear that from his life perspective.
“You know that was God intervening in my life when Julian and Lori took me in, showed me what love and family really was. And it changed everything. We are struggling just like anyone else to get our life right, but this weekend was another encouragement to keep moving forward. I can do this. I can do better. God is giving us a chance.”