AKRON, Ohio — Anyone can spot Carmine Robinson as he drives through the roughest sections of Akron, Ohio, inside his flashy SUV with its glistening 24-inch rims spinning off sunshine.
He could be on his way home, or to the bank, or on the lookout for new customers.
But make no mistake, Robinson gets noticed. Now, it’s for a different reason.
He welcomes the attention. He’s made it now. His transformation, while not complete, is his trophy.
His Transformations barbershop, with his Chevrolet Tahoe parked outside, is his mantle, firmly standing inside the Village of New Seasons, a contemporary retail center. He’s been sober seven years, married for the first time and serving as a mentor to others with the same struggles that bogged him down for so many years.
It wasn’t always like this for Robinson. Some 60 or so times in his life, police noticed him and slapped on the cuffs. Three times, a judge took notice and shipped him off to prison. Other times, his friends and family noticed that he was high, drunk or homeless.
Then it stopped, like a rock, hitting a wall.
“I was sick and tired of living in the streets,” Robinson recalled. “I wanted to stop as much as I wanted to take my next breath. And all of this happened to me for one reason: I wanted it.”
Saddled with a felony record when he left prison a little over three years ago, Robinson found refuge and a mentor in the Rev. Michael Starks and his SLAAP ministry, Start Living and Acting Positive.
Robinson, 43, is one of a number of men and women aided by Starks and community-based programs designed to turn around lives. He’s now sending a message to other men, a sign of hope, but a call for work and responsibility.
“We’ve got to be fathers to our kids,” he said. “We have to step up and be kings of your families. We’ve got to be fathers to kids that want help. We’ve got to teach men to be fathers and come back to their families, because they’re hurting.”
For Robinson, his transformation came as soon as he landed back in Akron after his last prison stint in 2009. He came home as always, but this time, he took a different turn, away from the neighborhood and temptations that dogged him for so long.
His rap sheet is immense, four pages of cases on the county clerk of courts website for offenses ranging from petty crimes to drug trafficking.
His home life wasn’t wrought with trouble. He came from a sound, God-fearing family, with a father and minister mother and two siblings. His home life contradicted what Robinson was doing to himself with drugs and alcohol.
“You don’t expect that,” said his mother, Minister Betty Robinson. “He was mischievous like most boys. … When I did find out about his drug use, I didn’t believe it. But no matter what he did, my prayer was always, ‘God, take care of him.’”
Robinson went to Buchtel High School and had his first son in 1989 while still in school. To support his son, he joined the Marines, spent three years in the service and received an honorable discharge.
He came home to Akron and the temptations of the streets. Marijuana, cocaine and alcohol were his temptresses. Like many addicts, his day was spent feeding his needs, disregarding the needs of his family, he said. He had four more children by 2000.
“Back then was real tough for me,” he said. “I was going through a sense of hopelessness. I know I had a family to help me, but I was too ashamed to ask for their help. I gave up on me.”
He worked as a cook off and on, but his days, he said, were filled with “busting a move, getting what I had to get that day, be it drugs or alcohol.”
Like cocaine, jobs came and went. At times, Robinson found himself homeless. Other times, he was incarcerated. When he’d return from jail or prison, there was always a time of positive behavior. Failure, however, was always lurking.
Rock bottom came when he just got tired of the run, he said. He embarked on his transformation from street troublemaker to entrepreneur. He started it with God and he credits his pastor, the Rev. Dr. R.A. Vernon of the Word Church, for the foundation of his turnaround.
From there, it was church and one haircut at a time. Finally, he said, he had a “blueprint” or an exit strategy for when he left prison. Too many others lack a plan when returning home and often fail, he said.
Those coming out of prison also have to find the right circle of family and friends.
“A person has to want to do it in his mind,” Robinson said, as he worked on the hair of a friend’s child. “I was just tired of not taking care of my children, not having anything for my family.”
Eventually, he obtained a barber’s license. More customers followed. Word spread. His client base grew. Now, he needed a place to land. But Robinson didn’t want his shop in a run-down store front or a depressed section of town.
By chance, his mother literally opened the door to his prime location. She was inside her apartment complex lobby when the property developer Paul Testa arrived. Testa couldn’t get inside and Mrs. Robinson opened the door for him.
They chatted briefly and Mrs. Robinson, 63, mentioned her son’s need of a location for his fledgling barber shop. Before long, Carmine Robinson was opening his shop in retail space below his mother’s apartment.
Just like Robinson, everything inside the shop is fresh and clean, from the red-and-black barber chairs to the large TVs on the walls.
“Now, when I drive by the projects or the hood or the places I used to do drugs or run around, people can’t believe it,” he said. “I hope it gives them hope to know that I was them, I was out there once, just like them. I made it. Now, they don’t have any excuse.”