Facing the Challenge
“I’m not trying to shift the blame, but in my case the wrong friends led to wrong actions. I was a natural leader at school and soon deeply involved in gang related activities.” Gerry grew up in Lavender Hill, an area where gangsterism is rife. “We had to steal in order to buy drugs. In the end I’m sad to say I was addicted for 27 years of my life.”
“I was kicked out of school by standard 7 and that broke my mother’s heart. I was the youngest of five children; her baby.”
The final straw came when Gerry and his friends broke into a Shoprite Checkers store early one morning. Armed to the tee with weapons, as well as inside knowledge of when the cash will be taken to all the tills (from a cashier friend), they got away with about R275 000. They paid with their freedom however, when they were all rounded up and sentenced after a police investigation. Gerry was 21 years old.
When he started his 15-year sentence at Pollsmoor prison, he joined the 26’s – a notoriously violent and dangerous gang that operates inside and outside of Western Cape prisons. The authorities soon moved him to other prisons to get him away from fellow gang members and to prevent him from orchestrating crime in the Lavender Hill area from within the prison. He was moved to prisons in Caledon, Malmesbury and Porterville. But being far from his gangster community also meant that he was far from the loving support of his real friends and family members, and it would be difficult for them to visit him.
We Shall Overcome
“I was angry and decided to go all out bandit. I realized I’m not going to get parole or get out before my full time is served. But while I was in Porterville prison, this Xhosa lady came to do a compulsory workshop with us called ‘Free to Grow’ about how we all can change if we really want to.” He was intrigued and when he showed interest, he was asked to help her present the course.
Gerry felt convinced that it is possible to change. He wanted to quit the 26’s but they told him that there’s only one gate in, but no gate to get out. “That’s why we get tattoo’s. To show how permanent your membership is. And remember, I had a high rank. I still have the stars on my shoulders that showed my seniority. That was also my saving grace, because they didn’t dare hurt such a high-ranking member of their own gang.” The tattoos proved to be only skin deep. Gerry had a change of heart and that impact was much deeper.
He started studying and helping other prisoners write letters to their loved ones. He talked to other prisoners. “I thought that if I could change, then anybody can change.”
He still recalls the day he met his true love. “I fell in love with Maggie before I even saw her. I somehow got a cellphone in jail and was told to phone this woman to remind her about something she needed to bring with at her next visit. I loved her voice and thought, ‘I have to meet her’.” They met when Gerry was still in prison and Maggie was working at trauma councilor at court and at the magistrate’s office. Luckily the feeling was mutual.
“After I was finally released from prison, Maggie and I moved to Paarl to get out of my old hood and for me to survive. When my older brother, whom I was very close to, was murdered in 2010, I knew that God had a plan with my life. That He had something for me to do and that’s why he protected me.” Gerry and Maggie got married in 2012, but he was still doing drugs in secret and not living 100% as he knew he should, battling to find meaning and adjust to life outside of prison.
In 2014 he had a life changing experience when he went to see two prophets in Beaufort West. “I heard the Lord loud and clear asking me: What are you doing here? And in the blink of an eye I was released from everything. Any addiction, the past, feelings of guilt, everything!” Gerry knew in his heart what he needed to do and that was to go out and make disciples, starting with the youth. He went home to Paarl and immediately started an NGO called “Free to Grow”, focusing on youth development in areas where it’s much needed such as Smartie Town.
At the End of the Day
Today he runs a soup kitchen from his own home, as well as an Early Development Centre (EDC) for about 17 toddlers. In the afternoon the bigger children come and do homework at his aftercare set-up. He volunteers at the Youth Lifestyle Centre and helps with their sport.
Gerry believes in the value of cooperation and partnerships with like-minded organisations such as Monte Christo Miqlat, Valcare and anyone else with a heart for the youth and making a difference in underprivileged communities. At the Test Learning Centre he prepares Gr. 7’s for high school together with his team.
He learned the hard way. Now Gerry’s only wish is to educate and warn kids about the dangers of getting involved in crime and gangs. “How you live, so too will you die. As the saying goes: you live by the sword, you die by the sword. And it happens before you know it. You get pulled down into a spiral of crime, violence, prison sentences and then it starts all over again. It ruins so many people’s lives.”
Free to Grow Ministries – 0612861458 / email@example.com