Damon Draper was a convicted felon serving a prison sentence.
As he and I walked side-by-side down a long hallway, searching for a place to sit and talk, a corrections officer followed close behind us.
When I requested this interview, I didn’t know much about Damon. I googled his name the day before we met. Links to news reports and surveillance video of his crime appeared faster than I was prepared for.
I also wasn’t prepared for the way his story would end. But to get there, we have to know the beginning.
There was a time in Damon’s life where his family was thriving. He lived in Florida and was married with two kids. They were surrounded by a great community and dedicated to volunteering with their church choir and prayer teams.
Eventually, going to church weekly turned into attending every other week, then every few months. Old lifestyles crept back in, and friends changed. Damon knew his family needed a fresh start, so he picked everyone up and moved to Cincinnati. Once there, he and his wife found jobs, the kids were in good schools, things were taking off in a new city.
Until they weren’t.
“I ended up breaking my leg, and had major surgery that put me out of work for months,” Damon told me. “We were used to living a certain way, and then our income was cut in half.”
Damon tried to get financial help but was denied. Soon, he fell into old habits of drugs and alcohol to numb the struggles of raising his family on limited resources.
“I’m sitting on the front porch one day, kids at school, wife out of town, and the gas and electric truck pulls up,” Damon said. “I thought they were doing a meter reading, but then they shut the power off.”
There were bills he’d been trying to catch up on. Later the same day, the water was shut off. Then their cell phones went out.
“My frustration level combined with pain pills and drinking—my back was up against the wall. There was so much pressure on me,” Damon said. “And they say pressure busts pipes. Well, I exploded.”
Damon got into his car, drove up the street, and robbed a bank at gunpoint.
“The teller put the money into a bag, and then I just walked out. I got in my car and drove a couple of minutes away. I parked and honestly just sat in shock for a while. Everything was silent.”
Damon used the money and paid all of their past due payments. The electric, water, and phones were all turned back on within hours.
A couple days passed by, and life seemed back to normal. Then he got on social media. Surveillance video of his crime was being shared around, and people recognized him. His wife came back into town, and everything hit the fan. And that’s when Damon says he prayed, for the first time in a long time.
“Whatever needed to happen in order to get me back in touch with God, I prayed it would happen,” Damon said. “And however much time that was going to take, I made peace with it.”
Damon decided to turn himself in, and in doing so, his wife agreed to stick by his side. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison.
“Three years away from my kids, at such a transitional point in their lives, leaving my wife to raise them alone, dealing with the media coverage and the embarrassment…It was hell.”
Damon stood in court in tears. He remembers the judge saying, “You’ll be back. You can still have an impact on your family.”
“I had lost myself and lost communication with God,” Damon told me. “And when we get to that point in our lives, God has no problem sitting us down so he can be heard. Just like a parent sends a child to their room, I felt God doing that to me. ‘Get in there, sit down, and think about what you’re doing. And you can come out when I’m ready.’”
Once in prison, Damon immediately found himself back in church. He got involved with the prison choir, went to church gatherings and dinners inside the institution. He began to help other prisoners, and they started looking up to him. As time went on, he was leading groups and life-changing programs for other inmates.
“At this point, God was telling me that this was where he wanted me to be,” Damon explained. “A lot of people look at prison as being filled with the most horrible people in the world. Most are regular people who’ve just made bad decisions.”
With less than a year left until his release, Damon was approached by the warden about an opportunity with Crossroads Church in Dayton. Through a partnership between Crossroads and Lebanon Correctional, a program was created for inmates with good behavior, where they could help with the church production team.
“When the warden asked me, it just followed suit with where I was heading,” Damon said. “It’s like there was a calling for me here in prison. Like God put me here to show me what my purpose is. I get chills talking about it. So I said ‘absolutely,’ and I was surrounded by positive people and giving back to society. And above all that, I was given the word of God, which is better than any freedom.”
Damon used to pray that he’d find a career that he loved doing. Now, changing the lives of people who’ve been incarcerated is his passion—one he says he wouldn’t have discovered had he not been on this side of the fence.
Looking ahead to when he gets out of prison, Damon already has a job lined up helping released inmates get back to work.
“What started out as the worst thing that ever happened to me has turned into the best. My family has learned about loss and mistakes. They’ve learned no one is perfect, including their father. I actually thank God every day that this happened.”
To the community of Crossroads who give their time, prayers, and resources for programs like this one, Damon says thank you.
“God uses people to get to others, and when you’re part of a church like this, there’s no telling who you’ll impact,” he said. “The amount of growth I’ve experienced since I’ve been with Crossroads is priceless. It’s changing the world.”
I reflected on his gratitude. I’d spent the morning at Crossroads watching people interact with Damon as he volunteered. I saw handshakes and high fives as he made new friends and greeted old ones. I watched him pray for others, tears streaming down their cheeks at the beauty of his words.
A program intended to serve inmates was also serving us. Funny how that works.
“Situations can destroy you, define you, or drive you,” Damon said. “I’m not proud of what I did. I accept what happened. But this is a driving force for me. I feel like one of those cars that you pull back, rev up, and let go. Onto the next chapter.”