Eleven years ago, Ja'Michael Heathington's mother put down her ironing and wrote a letter that would wind up saving her son's life.
One letter. White notebook paper. Black ink. Written atop an ironing board. It read: "Thank you for being in the lives of these boys and my son. Keep doing what you're doing."
"It gave me the green light," said Willie Richardson. "After that letter, I never let him out of my sight."
Ja'Michael, 12, had come home that day complaining about summer camp. One counselor in particular -- Willie -- had come down too hard, not letting him get away with much. Ja'Michael wanted a sympathetic ear. A way out of going back to camp.
But his mother — single, living in Golden Gateway Apartments next to public housing -- saw past her son's pleas. This counselor — Willie — was just a college student then, working for the YMCA. But he was a man who knew right from wrong. A man who cared.
In the years ahead, he would become the one thing Ja'Michael needed most.
"A dad," Ja'Michael said.
The story between Willie and Ja'Michael starts with the letter. Neither could know the hard times that lay ahead. Between then and today, Ja'Michael would graduate from high school, become a father too early, live on the streets, spend a night in jail, re-enter college and find salvation.
"I never gave up on him," Willie said. "I love him too much."
It is the story of the prodigal son, set in inner-city Chattanooga. Willie, the surrogate father. Ja'Michael, the son who leaves.
And finally comes back home.
Ja'Michael barely knew his father. When Ja'Michael heard his dad was coming around the neighborhood, he would stare for hours out the window. Waiting. Watching.
"For the whole day," said Ja'Michael. "He'd never show."
After that ironing board letter, Ja'Michael and Willie grew close. Willie would stop by, knocking with a signature knock. Three soft knocks followed by one hard knock. Kind of like life.
They'd go eat -- Taco Mac was their favorite — and talk for hours: girls, life, parents, God.
"Each time, he'd order the same thing I did," Willie remembers. "He always said, 'If you like it, I'll like it.'"
In 2005, Willie had to go home to Memphis for a funeral. He invited Ja'Michael and promised to buy him a new suit.
"There was one stipulation," said Willie.
Ja'Michael was a sophomore at Red Bank High School. His grades, terrible. To get to Memphis in his new suit, he had to start studying.
"It was the first time I'd made the honor roll in my whole life," said Ja'Michael.
On the back of the report card, Willie wrote Ja'Michael a question no one had ever asked him before: "What do you want to do when you graduate?"
No one would like the choices Ja'Michael was going to make as his answer.
Willie has this laugh. It's more like a boom. It's contagious, in the way good laughs can be.
When he's with Ja'Michael these days, Willie does a lot of laughing. It's the laugh of somebody who's been through the wilderness and come out the other side. It's a laugh of hope fulfilled.
These days, Willie is the fathering coordinator for First Things First. He has two little kids of his own. There's a lot to laugh about.
But there was a time, between Willie and Ja'Michael, when the laughter fell silent.
After he graduated, Ja'Michael and his girlfriend got pregnant. Ashamed, Ja'Michael stopped calling Willie. He ignored Willie's calls. Willie would come by the apartment and knock that signature knock, but Ja'Michael would hide. Tell the dog to hush. Drop the shades.
For nine months.
"I knew. I was hurt," said Willie. "But it was up to him."
Ja'Michael turned 19 on the day his daughter was born. At the hospital, he called and Willie came. And the first thing he did?
"I gave him a hug," said Willie.
Willie then gave Ja'Michael a book on fatherhood. Willie knew the road ahead would be tough.
But the worst was yet to come.
"You've got to understand the cycle of men in my family. They're either going to jail, abusing drugs, abusive to women or not finishing school," said Ja'Michael.
Ja'Michael began college, but started fighting with his girlfriend, who moved away. Things began to fall apart.
In the summer of 2011, Ja'Michael was living in a vacant house — no electricity, heat or air conditioning — and getting high whenever he could. He slept on two blankets. Rats scuttled by each night.
Willie knew. So did Ja'Michael's mom. But if Ja'Michael was going to get out, he had to do it on his own.
"If I had pulled him out," Willie said, "he wouldn't be where he is today."
Months later, Ja'Michael was arrested for marijuana possession. He spent the night in jail.
"My rock bottom," said Ja'Michael. And his turning point.
A few nights later, Ja'Michael, alone in the empty house, began to pray. Outside, a storm thundered and crashed, mirroring the struggle inside his heart and mind.
"I prayed hard," he said. "I was crying for about two hours straight, and then in the morning, the sun was beaming. The sky was so clear.
"And something said, 'Go to Temple.'"
Ja'Michael had been a student at Tennessee Temple but dropped out. He returned that day, empty-handed. But people at Temple remembered Ja'Michael. And his potential.
They invited Ja'Michael to move back on campus for free. He worked in the cafeteria, earning free meals. Ja'Michael made a B in his summer school class (New Testament), enrolling again in the fall of 2011. He's been on the honor roll ever since.
"My feet are solid," he said.
He speaks with confidence. Hope. He's trying to mend things with his daughter's mother. He's volunteering for the United Way. Majoring in education, he wants to be a teacher.
Ja'Michael and Willie's story is just one. Many teenage boys — in housing projects here and across America — face a bleak world.
"Without fathers, this is what you get," Willie said. "It's a one-way street to death or incarceration."
Moments later, with tears in his eyes, Ja'Michael will again come home to the fact that this man Willie has saved his life.
"I would have been lost without Willie," he said.
And now he's been found.
You should hear them laugh.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...