Ramon Barrera grew up in a home in Saginaw that was — in his words — steeped in poverty, drug use and drug dealing. People in his family didn’t go to graduate from high school, much less go to college. His father was rarely around because he was in and out of jail and addicted to drugs. “We had no aspirations and no dreams,” he said.
“We moved from house to house and school to school. We had dinner at Salvation Army soup kitchens,” Ramon said. It might sound like a dire childhood to many, but it wasn’t for Ramon. “I thought we were just having fun. Mom fed us and made us go to school, but we would go out into the neighborhood and start skipping school.”
He saw that life was perilous. Three uncles on his father’s side of the family and one on his mother’s side were murdered. “There were moments of fear, but these things became normal,” Ramon said.
By the time he entered his mid-teens, Ramon’s life was on the same path that he saw his father and several of his uncles take. By 16, he had already joined a gang, started to sell drugs and had his first run-in with the law. By 17, he had become a father himself.
Growing up, Ramon expected his life to follow the same path of his family members. Ultimately, though, Ramon’s life would veer off in a different direction. Now 45 and with five children and three grandchildren of his own, he spends his time trying to reach others who have been where he was — involved with drugs, in prison and struggling to re-establish themselves on the outside. And he does it through a deep sense of faith. “I really believe that any affliction or trauma that we’ve been through in our lives — we are anointed in our lives to set those captives free, to minister to those people. Anybody can help, but we are purposed to minister out of our pain, so I do it.”
The change in Ramon didn’t come easy and it didn’t come fast. He would have to do it the hard way, by making many mistakes and learning how to make amends for them the best he could.
Ramon first went to prison for two years on a cocaine charge. He later faced life in prison for assault with intent to murder when a passenger in a car he was driving shot at four people. However, he was convicted on other charges, including fleeing from a police officer, resisting and obstructing a police officer and felony firearm, resulting in a sentence of 4-15 years.
His daughter told him how his incarceration was hurting her. “She was crying and saying, ‘Remember when I was little and you were locked up? And now you are again. What am I going to do with my life?’” Ramon recalled. “I tried to explain that I was sorry, and I was going to do the best that I could. It just solidified for me that change has to happen. I would still have to do four years, but I could get my life back.”
Knowing he had to change was one thing. Knowing how to go about it was another. In desperation, Ramon called out the only way he knew.
“I remember saying, ‘God, if you’re real…’ I started reading and praying and putting things into perspective, but there was nothing I could do about (my situation),” Ramon said.
Praying was a new thing for Ramon, who grew up in a family that didn’t put much value in religion. But Ramon started to notice changes in his life — positive changes — that he wanted to share with others.
“Began to tell other guys about the value of life and testify about daughter and testify about the changes I started to see,” Ramon said.
Some of the people in prison who had known him before respected the changes he was going through. Others suspected he was faking it in order to make a good impression. Ramon said he didn’t let anyone’s opinion change what he was doing.
“I just told them that I wasn’t trying to preach to them or change them,” he said. “I knew what was happening in my heart. I knew the peace in my heart. I can’t explain that, but they saw it. People said I didn’t even swear anymore. Some people kept their distance, but other people respected it.”
That included prison administrators, who approved Ramon for a faith-based program at a prison in Muskegon, where he was transferred to. In part because of the changes he had made in himself, he was able to be paroled after four years.
“When you get out, a lot of things will come at you. You think you can get away with it if you do just a little bit,” Ramon said.
He quickly learned that wasn’t the case.
Once home, Ramon tried to reconcile with the mother of his daughter. The two went to a casino for fun and had some drinks together, and Ramon said she wanted to drive home. He recognized the danger and tried to stop her from taking the car keys from him, and a scuffle ensued. Cameras around the casino picked up the struggle and he was arrested. Thankfully, he was able to take a 90-day court-ordered program rather than return to incarceration, but that event was enough to convince him that he couldn’t afford to bend the rules anymore.
Thankfully, Ramon said, the rest of re-entry went as he had planned — literally. He planned to get a job, so he found a job when he got home. He planned to succeed and so he did.
“A lot of have a defeated mindset that you can’t get a job after you’ve been in prison. You hear all this negative talk,” Ramon said. “My mindset was, ‘you have favor, you are blessed.’”
He took all kinds of jobs: cleaning buildings late nights with a family friend, sorting cargo at trucking and warehousing company, driving a forklift. Eventually, he made his way into management positions. But more than anything, he wanted to be able blend his faith with his work.
He found his way to Fresh Coast Alliance in April 2021 and a job as house manager that allows him to direct his energy toward other formerly incarcerated people. Fresh Coast Alliance, though it doesn’t demand clients adhere to any faith, does view religious faith as a powerful asset in someone’s recovery and re-entry process.
“I believe that this is what I’m called to,” Ramon said. “Our purpose in lives is to set people free. … Anybody can help, but we are purposed to minister out of our pain, so I do it. The places where you’ve hurt or been hurt, that’s where you are really called to help.”
Ramon believes that it’s people who have been through tough times and faced humiliation and defeat who are best equipped to help others in those places. “If you really haven’t been in those shoes, it’s tough to really understand what they’re going through,” he said. “If they know you’ve gone through it, they know you’re going to be there for them. They’ll understand that they’re not in an impossible situation.”
That doesn’t mean that only people who have been entangled with the law can help others who have been, he hurried to say. Everyone can help other people make positive changes — but first, you have to believe that other people can change. “I see people giving up on other people like they’re never going to change. I’ve seen over and over that’s not true,” he said. “It doesn’t take what I’ve been through to be somebody great.”
Ramon wishes that more people who haven’t been incarcerated would try to understand people like him — people who made bad choices in the past but who are dedicating their lives to correcting those mistakes and helping others today.
“Try to understand more rather than giving up on people,” he urged. “You may not understand, but talk to someone about it and hear more stories of redemption and hope. I really believe that then you’ll look at people who’ve been incarcerated through different lenses. There’s still hope.”
Listen to Ramon tell his story here: