Henry Oakman is a free man but still a prisoner of his past.
He spent most of his years as a wanderer, some as a criminal and few helping others.
But after a 2007 heart attack made doctors hint at funeral arrangements, he swore that the rest of his years would be spent bettering society.
In 2009, he slipped a three-piece suit over his tattoos and started his new life volunteering at Hornsby K-8 School, determined to reach at-risk kids before they repeated his mistakes.
Every day, he’d arrive on campus before most teachers and pick up a broom or take out trash. At lunchtime, Oakman monitored the cafeteria and was the calming presence teachers called on to talk down a frustrated student.
By the end of the 2009-10 year, Oakman had racked up 917 hours of service, earning him the school’s Volunteer of the Year award.
He took a two-year hiatus and returned in August to pick up where he left off. But when a parent found out about his criminal history, school officials, acknowledging the good he did on the campus, thanked him for his service and banned him from volunteering.
“It’s not fair,” Oakman said. “I don’t know why I’m being handcuffed. I thought this was a forgiving nation. People make mistakes, so where’s the incentive to turn around? You turn your life around and try to help others, and there’s nothing there for you. What kind of example is that?”
OAKMAN’S GOAL was to use his past as a cautionary lesson to students, but Richmond County School System officials said he never would have been allowed to volunteer if they had known about his criminal convictions.
“Yes, we all want to have a second chance to do a better job, and we want to encourage people to continue to improve on mistakes and slips along the way, but we don’t want them to be affecting the character development of young children whose minds are so impressionable,” said Carol Rountree, the district’s director of student services.
Rountree said Oakman’s convictions could have fallen through the cracks in 2009 because they were all out-of-state, and the system only ran a Georgia background check.
The district has guidelines on who is allowed in schools, and the rules are the same for volunteers and employees.
People with serious offenses, such as manslaughter and rape, cannot be hired. Some crimes mean disqualification if they were committed within 10 years, others within five years, and some are reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
In Oakman’s situation, a vehicle burglary charge in Kansas from 2007, aggravated assault in Utah from 2000 and a burglary and drug charge in California from 1991 disqualify him, Rountree said.
“Sometimes people have good intentions,” Rountree said. “They feel like telling kids ‘You need to stay out of trouble,’ and then use their own lives as an example. But children see that as ‘Maybe I can do something, and then I will be forgiven.’ You don’t want that.”
THE 48-YEAR-OLD is not denying his mistakes, but he said his life is a tool that should be used to help others before his heart condition worsens.
He was born in Kansas City, Kan., and moved to “the Blood and Crips (gang) capital of the world,” Long Beach, Calif., to live with his father when he was 7 years old.
Like many kids at the school, Oakman joined the Long Beach Crips when he was 12 and looked up to the older gang members as though they were family.
At the time, gangs were more for protection than violence, and the gang members told him to stay in school and help his father.
When his mother was on her death bed, Oakman moved back to Kansas City at 17 to be with her. After her death, Oakman joined the Marine Corps as a way to support his two sisters and brother.
After the service, he cooked hamburgers and eggs at the stadiums for the Kansas City Chiefs and Royals. He got an offer to open the kitchen at the then-Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami in 1987 and went for it.
It started out like a dream, but when the players went on strike, Oakman returned to Kansas with $380 in his bank account and no plan.
“That’s where my problems really began,” Oakman said. “I was lost, trying to find my way in life.”
From the early ’90s until 2004, Oakman wandered. He had no wife and no kids, so no responsibility.
In 2004, he was fed up.
“I hadn’t been the best citizen to this point,” he said. “I didn’t want to live my life in a way that wasn’t making a difference to anybody.”
That year, Oakman moved to Augusta, where his brother’s genealogy project showed his ancestors had lived after slavery. He joined a church, got a job as the executive chef at the 1102 Downtown Bar and Grill and found love.
He met his wife, a custodian at Hornsby, in church and got married soon after. He took in her five children as his own and found a new purpose in life.
In 2009, his volunteer work began at his wife’s school. It was the happiest Oakman had been in years.
“He was a volunteer, but you’d think he was on salary because he’d get there as early as 7 in the morning and leave at 5 in the evening,” said then-middle school administrator Charles Givens. “He was a person who I could depend on to do pretty much do anything.”
Givens said Oakman escorted new students to class, cleaned the hallways and showed up to work every day in an impeccable suit and tie. He was a good example, Givens said, and most important, trustworthy.
IN 2010, Oakman was in a car accident. The deputy at the scene checked his record and found an outstanding warrant for a vehicle burglary charge in Kansas from 2007. Oakman denies any involvement in the incident, but he decided to not to waste money fighting the charge.
So he returned to Kansas and served nine months in jail, leaving his volunteer work behind, and finished a year of probation in Augusta.
When his probation was completed, he went back to Hornsby in August and began coaching middle school football, picking up where he left off.
By October, someone caught wind of where he had been for the past year, and it was over.
Oakman tried to explain his case to school officials, that his goal is to change his life by helping others, but they didn’t budge. Rountree, Deputy Superintendent Tim Spivey and Athletic Director George Bailey met and decided that his past criminal record outweighed his volunteer record at the school.
Oakman said he is not giving up and wants to return to helping at-risk kids.
Because of his cardiomyopathy and emphysema, he doesn’t think he has more than five years of life in him. That leaves little time, but Oakman said his story of rebirth can be used to help kids growing with the same distractions that affected him.
“I don’t want my life to not make a difference to anybody else but me,” Oakman said. “God knows I’ve done wrong, and I’ve decided I want to fix it. Please let me.”