Once a drug dealer and the leader of a Durham gang, Otis Lyons now leads a movement called Campaign 4 Change to stop young people from falling into his former lifestyle.
“A lot of kids that’s acting up they tell people that’s trying to help, ‘You don’t understand. You don’t live my life. You don’t walk in my shoes’…they know I understand,” says Lyons.
Lyons was raised in an impoverished environment, with his mother addicted to drugs and his father not around.
“Growing up where I grew up, people nurture you to be the next drug dealer or the next gang banger,” says Lyons. “They don’t nurture you to be a lawyer or a doctor.”
Lyons says he created the gang, the North Durham Vice, in his teens to gain a sense of power and importance.
At the age of 19, he was charged for assault with a deadly weapon and given a 30-year prison sentence.
“The great part about it was that [the judge] sentenced me to punishment, but it actually saved my life,” says Lyons.
While he was in prison many of the members of his gang were killed, and after serving only five years, his sentence was overturned.
After his release, Lyons was determined to make a difference, but he fell back into selling drugs.
Lyons says one night he dreamed that God paid him a visit, flashing incidents of all the times He had saved his life.
Lyons particularly remembers a time when seven men surrounded him to take his life. One grabbed him from behind, put the gun up to his head and pulled the trigger. Miraculously, Lyons survived.
In the dream, Lyons clearly remembers God telling him, “You’re not a vegetable. You’re not in a wheelchair. You’ve got all of your senses. Why do you think I saved you?”
“To save others,” says Lyons.
The Act of Change
Campaign 4 Change started with Lyons doing workshops and talking to kids; then he realized that kids need something more than just somebody saying, “Don’t do that.”
He added skits and songs to the workshops, eventually creating a play called “Ridin wit’ Joe Crack.” Lyons says he created the play to educate young people about why to say no to the lure of gangs and drug dealing.
The play will give audiences of all ages a better understanding of what it’s like to live in poverty and to be faced with the same obstacles, says Lyons.
Moriah Williams, last year’s female lead in the play, says, “I like to use my talent to inspire young children in the community and adults, people who have given up hope.”
The tenth annual performance of “Ridin wit’ Joe Crack” is this January, with new performers auditioning each year.
Jakayla Hart, who now serves as Campaign 4 Change’s Youth Ambassador, was deeply impacted by the decision to audition for the play.
At the age of 12, when she tried out for the play Lyons says she was not ready for the stage but something told him to choose her anyway.
Hart explains, “All I wanted to do was be on stage. I didn’t care about the message or his mission statement.”
Hart started out by helping Lyons behind the scenes, until one day he decided to give her the opportunity to perform.
Lyons asked her to write a poem about why gangs are bad, but she refused. He soon discovered that it was because she was in a gang herself.
Hart says that was the day Lyons decided to take her on as his project and get her out of the gang.
“I spent a good amount of time thinking that would be my life, and it feels like almost immediately that was over,” Hart says.
She became his assistant, working her way up to the lead female acting role before graduating from high school.
Now a pre-med student on scholarship at Emory University, Hart says Lyons made her “think big.”
“I may have worked for it, but I never would have thought of working for it until I met him,” she says.
Lyons continues to think big with his goals for Campaign 4 Change.
The play was only the beginning. Revenue from the performance now raises money for the organization’s other work.
The Continuing Campaign
Recent additions to the Campaign 4 Change movement include Carolina Idol talent competition, Kings and Queens Pageant, and DON’s Basketball League.
Started in 2012, DON’s Basketball League has become an integral part of Campaign 4 Change.
Last summer, over 350 youths signed up for 100 spots total among 10 different teams. Everything is free: uniforms, transportation, coaching, and even halftime entertainment.
The only requirement from the players is that they do community service once a week and attend mandatory educational workshops on game days.
“It’s another production inside of a basketball game, and it’s all for these kids. They know that it’s all for them so that motivates them to be greater and do better,” says Hart.
“Basketball is the way we get to them…They’re little boys when they come in; they’re starting to think like men when they finish,” says Hart.
Lyons is constantly coming up with fresh ideas because he says his work will never be done.
“You’ll never stop gangs and drugs because it’s a multibillion dollar business over my head, so my goal is to really make a national impact,” says Lyons. “Not just help kids in Durham, but help kids all over the nation in some way.”
He does this by touring with volunteers and speaking on a topic that is often neglected: the seductive and lucrative lure of the drug dealer lifestyle.
“These kids that are out here waving guns and shooting and killing, people look at them as stone cold criminals,” says Lyons. “They are because of their actions, but they were victims before they became that.”
Volunteer Moriah Williams says they tell young people: “Hey, the street isn’t the only way…you don’t always have to fall where society wants you to. The same way I followed my dreams, you can too.”
In this way, Lyons and the volunteers are able to use their stories to help others along the same path.
“Performing spoken word pieces turned into giving motivational speeches to other drug dealers and gang bangers who were trying to get out of the lifestyle,” says Hart.
Lyons is thankful not only that he was able to escape his former life but also that he has been able to help so many others in his position.
“I still don’t know why [God] chose me,” says Lyons. “I’m just so thankful and so glad because I love my life.”