Seeds for Marvin
Compelled by a family tragedy, Frankie Roberts started LINC to provide hope, skills and community for men and women coming out of prison and addiction.
In a small field behind a building that used to be a jail, a few short steps from the winding Cape Fear River in Wilmington, North Carolina, is a farm.
Cucumbers and squash, corn and okra, zucchini and a variety of beans are grown there, planted and tended to by the people living in the building that formerly housed the New Hanover County Jail Annex. When ready, the vegetables are harvested, pulled from their vines, cleaned, organized, and stored.
Soon, the vegetables are cooked, providing food for the residents who brought them from seed to table.
The residents prepare all lunches and dinners themselves, using meat provided through a local food bank distribution service, along with the homegrown starches and vegetables. The farm functions as a source of food and nourishment for many of the people who call this place home for a while.
For Frankie Roberts, the founder and director of Leading Into New Communities (LINC) the farm is a metaphor, a tool to communicate a variety of lessons about life, about survival, and about perseverance.
According to Roberts, all principles of life operate on the law of the farm: sowing and reaping, planting, harvesting, patience, dedication, resilience, and resistance to forces that might have other plans for you or your vegetables.
“This farm is the centerpiece of what we do here. It’s our hymn book.”
When seeds are planted, some are eaten by birds while others fall on thorny ground, Roberts says, paraphrasing the Parable of the Sower. Some get choked out by the weeds while others find their way into fertile soil, someday growing toward the sun.
It’s those final seeds, the ones that defy the odds and the perils of nature, eventually becoming life-giving food, that Roberts instructs his charges to focus on. Not the threatening weeds that grow around them, nor the ground from which they sprout.
Because weeds will grow no matter what. Unlike the seeds, they don’t require tending, compassion, and encouragement. Weeds just grow, overtaking everything in their path.
Though LINC is not a faith-based organization, Roberts uses the three-quarter-acre vegetable farm as a parable of his own, helping men and women transition from life in prison to life in the outside world, with a focus on growth.
“This farm is the centerpiece of what we do here,” Roberts said, as a gentle rain began to nourish the soil. “It’s our hymn book.”
“No One Wants to Be Reminded of Their Worst Mistake”
Frankie Roberts has spent his entire life in Wilmington.
Frankie and his two older brothers, William and Marvin, were raised near the seaside city’s historic downtown district in an historically African American neighborhood called The Bottom.
Seventeen years separated Frankie from his eldest brother Marvin, making young Frankie just 8 when his brother returned home from his second tour of duty in Vietnam. Along with the invisible scars of war, Marvin returned to Wilmington addicted to heroin.
Years later, Frankie would learn that Marvin volunteered for a second tour in Vietnam because of the ease with which he could score dope while deployed.
As his eldest brother’s addiction required so much of the family’s focus, Frankie often felt deprived of the attention a little boy requires. It was a deprivation that led to years of resentment.
After a few years at home, Marvin was arrested on an armed robbery charge and sent to prison for what would be his first of many stints in jail.
“That was my day of triumph,” Frankie said. “Or at least I thought it was. Because he was going to be gone and I didn’t have to deal with that and I was gonna get my attention from my parents back.”
Much to Frankie’s dismay, however, his parents brought him along to see Marvin at a prison in Clinton, North Carolina, an hour’s drive each way, every Sunday.
As the Roberts family were Seventh-day Adventists who worshipped on Saturday, Sundays were the only days Frankie could spend time with friends outside of school. Frankie felt that Marvin, even from behind bars, was robbing him of his childhood.
Over the next three decades, Frankie and Marvin’s relationship vacillated and was often fractured as Marvin battled his addiction and served various sentences in area jails. Meanwhile, Frankie built a stable life around the local barbershop he owned.
The brothers would see each other from time to time around Wilmington. Marvin would stop by the barbershop, offering to shine the shoes of Frankie’s clients. Eventually, Frankie built a little shoe shine station for his brother to make some extra money during his infrequent drop-ins.
On March 11, 1998, Marvin went into New Hanover Regional Medical Center for a planned procedure to improve circulation in his legs. At the time, the brothers were estranged.
Early that morning, Frankie phoned his mother, telling her that he needed to apologize to his brother, to mend the fences that had grown between them over decades of Marvin’s addiction.
Armed with Marvin’s room number, Frankie decided to cut one more head of hair before heading to the hospital. As he reached for his car door, one of his employees shouted to Frankie, telling him there was a call he needed to take.
It was Marvin’s first wife, Ophelia.
She called to tell Frankie that his brother had died shortly after the procedure.
Marvin was 49.
“I was already at my car, and all of the regret and everything just kind of fell on me,” Frankie said. “I just cried and cried.”
Weeks after burying his brother, Frankie decided he needed to help people like Marvin. What, exactly, he wasn’t sure. So he contacted Tracey Ray, a lifelong friend who, like Frankie, had a brother struggling with addiction.
The two resolved to start a foundation aimed at helping people coming out of prison. Frankie devoted himself fully, cutting hair only on weekends to make ends meet.
Within 18 months, LINC was born.
From the earliest conversations in the wake of Marvin’s death, LINC was envisioned as a transitional home where men and women could come upon their release from prison, where they could learn the skills necessary to re-enter — or, in some cases, enter for the first time — the workforce, and enjoy a support system that was free of judgement.
“People who don’t practice forgiveness are the biggest barrier for these people,” Roberts said, motioning to a group of residents who comprised LINC’s farm crew as they took a break in the light rain. “And no one wants to be reminded of their worst mistake.”
Though LINC is contracted with North Carolina’s penitentiary system, most of its residents learn about the program through word of mouth or via their state-appointed case managers.
In its earliest iteration, LINC operated out of the back of Roberts’ barbershop. Unable to provide transitional housing, it focused its efforts on building a support system for people coming out of North Carolina’s penal system.
Eventually, Roberts and Ray found a small administrative office in downtown Wilmington and were able to build a 10-bed housing facility on the floor above their offices where, from 2006 to 2012, LINC operated.
In 2007, they bought a building on the northern outskirts of downtown, down a wooded road just off the highway. As far back as Frankie can remember, it had been a low-security jail annex used to house men and women serving weekend sentences or in work-release programs.
Almost immediately, LINC began a renovation of the building that would take five years and cost $1.41 million. The money was raised through developer Scott Redinger, whose work focused on non-profit and community-oriented entities. Redigner helped LINC secure $550,000 each from the city of Wilmington and the North Carolina Housing and Finance Agency, and an additional $310,000 from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta.
"People who don't practice forgiveness are the biggest barrier for these people."
The building’s kitchens were renovated, its cells turned into large dormitory-style bedrooms. Its communal bathrooms and showers were refurbished to add some privacy and a pair of group dining and living rooms were built.
Outside, sheds and makeshift shelters were constructed, as was a bike rack, which today holds some two-dozen bikes that the residents can use for leisure or transportation.
The trees behind the building, which reached nearly to the back doors, were felled. The farm that LINC would use as the centerpiece of its efforts was planted in the new field.
In 2012, after the renovation was completed, Frankie Roberts and Tracey Ray moved LINC from its small, downtown facility to its new, permanent home.
Today, LINC operates at capacity in the men’s hall, with 25 residents living and typically working at the facility, with the average stay lasting four months. And while the women’s side of the facility can accommodate up to 20 women, it usually houses 10-12 at a time, due to a much smaller number of women being incarcerated in North Carolina. The facility also includes a room for a mother and child.
“We’ve only had a few babies here over the years,” Roberts said. “But we like it when we do. Everyone is on their best behavior.”
One Minute at a Time
Frankie Roberts has an easy demeanor. He speaks in a measured cadence, with each phrase preceded by a thoughtful moment of silence.
Every resident who passes by acknowledges him, often with a shout and a nod. Roberts responds, recognizing how blessed he feels to be here, to be around people who are alive and on the road to wellness.
“Thankful” is one of Roberts’ operative words and one he uses with nearly every resident that crosses his path.
“I’m always reminding them how thankful I am,” he said. “That has always been my response. Because it helps me recognize how thankful I am for what I got. If I had run into some of the obstacles some of these individuals have, I don’t know if I could have survived it.”
Roberts also recognizes the tenuous nature of his work, that most current and former residents of LINC will always live on rocky ground, especially when they arrive at his facility.
“Sometimes it’s a ‘one day at a time’ thing,” he said, slowly walking the grounds as the rain lightened. “But more often, it’s a ‘one minute at a time’ thing.”
One of LINC’s most successful stories is that of Cynthia Martin, who arrived at LINC in August 2017. She had spent two years in and out of prison for drug charges related to heroin use.
“[Heroin] was something that affected Frankie’s family life,” she said. “So I felt kind of on the same page with him, knowing what kind of damage it can do to your family life.”
Originally from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, about three and a half hours to the northwest, Martin saw LINC as a chance to break out of unhealthy patterns after her case manager had apprised her of the program.
“I heard about the way Frankie helped people, and I wanted in,” Martin said. “And I knew if I went back to where I was from, the outcome would be the same.”
Martin bought into the program immediately, working the grounds, focusing on her recovery, and even working with LINC’s community outreach in the area around Wilmington. After a year in residence, she left, and with the help of Roberts and LINC, scored a job at the local K&W Cafeteria, and began looking for a place to live.
“When I started to try to be self-sufficient, it really impacted my life, because people knew Frankie,” Martin said, adding that, after searching unsuccessfully for housing, she reached out to a realtor who knew Roberts and his work with LINC.
“[The realtor] looked at my background and she said, ‘Well, I don’t know, but I’m gonna try it.’ And she gave me a chance because of Frankie. And I never let her down.”
With money from her job at K&W proving too little, Martin began looking for another job. Again, Roberts and his team at LINC stepped in to help, pointing Martin in the direction of the New Hanover County landfill, where she worked temporarily before being hired full-time in 2020.
Recently, Martin purchased her first home.
“Frankie’s kind of like a dad,” Martin said with a laugh. “He’s there to support you, but he’s not playing games with this. This is serious. This is life.”
Told of this sentiment, Roberts breaks loose with a laugh that is laden with humility.
“I just try to stay thankful,” he said. “To stay positive.”
In one of the halls of the building, outside a main administrative office, a growing collection of plaques hang from the wall honoring LINC’s work in the community. Some are laser-etched wood while others carry row upon row of small brass plates with names of people who’ve contributed to LINC over the years, people like Dr. John Fellerath, a retired therapist who donates his time to fix and maintain the facility’s bikes; LeeAnne Quattrucci, a former board member who buys residents gifts around Christmastime; Lee Ann Bolton, who has spearheaded many Thanksgiving dinners along with an annual Italian-American dinner for the residents; and Brian West, who started a beehive that was housed at LINC for a time and taught residents how to work as beekeepers.
Hanging on the wall is a framed photo of Marvin as a young man, just before deploying to — or perhaps just returning from — Vietnam. He’s smiling in his military dress uniform, the sharp lines of his jacket collars in near-perfect symmetry.
Not far from the photo is a medium-sized sign that clearly spells out the official name of the former jail annex that now serves as LINC’s home, helping men and women wade through the challenges of life after prision and to focus on the seeds of positivity rather than the weeds that will grow no matter what: The Marvin E. Roberts Transitional Living Facility.