How Mele Lavaka Went From Drug Dealer to Role Model

Mele Lavaka has made enormous changes in her life.
Courtesy of Mele Lavaka
Mele Lavaka has made enormous changes in her life.
In recent weeks, Mele Lavaka closed on her first home. That's impressive for a 25-year-old, particularly given the current state of the Denver housing market. But her accomplishment is even greater considering that a little over two years ago, she was in Denver County jail after being arrested for dealing drugs, as she'd been doing since she was a teenager. And it was hardly the first time Lavaka wound up behind bars.

"I was selling dope, making $10,000 to $15,000 a day on the streets of Denver and driving luxury cars," she recalls. "But I'd also been in and out of jail twelve times. It was a crazy lifestyle."

She's living in a different world now thanks to her intelligence, perseverance and an assist from CrossPurpose, a nonprofit career program for underserved adults. "Life can beat us down," concedes Rochelle Ngatia, the CrossPurpose career coach who worked with Lavaka, "and we can beat ourselves down, too. Sometimes we need a cheerleader who can say, 'I see the strength in you.' It's amazing to see how far some people can go with just a little encouragement and a lot of drive — and Mele is one of those people."

In addition to a part-time gig at Nordstrom, Lavaka is currently employed as "a broker for a lot of business owners who are in need of working capital, loans, lines of credit, innovative funding solutions." It's a skill set she's had for years, albeit one honed via illicit means.

"Cocaine was my main thing," she explains, "but if someone had a preference for something else that day or that weekend, it was easy for me to network with the right people to get heroin, meth, pills. In that lifestyle, you can get your hands on anything and everything, and I did that for years — but I always made sure I kept bond money on the side, just in case."

Following a bust in 2016, however, this plan fell apart. "The judge didn't give a bond," Lavaka recalls, "so I had to stay in jail, and that's when it really hit home. I was like, 'I can't even pay my way out anymore.' But instead of blaming everyone and pointing the finger and playing the victim role, I felt like something had to give — there had to be a better way."

click to enlarge A recent CrossPurpose graduation ceremony. - CROSSPURPOSE
A recent CrossPurpose graduation ceremony.
She began reading incessantly — "self-help books, credit-repair books, relationship-building books. And I just kind of reprogrammed my thinking process so I could put it into practice. It's easy to read a book and say, 'That's what I'm going to do when I get out.' But actually doing it is the hard part."

Lavaka, who'd received a six-year community corrections sentence, was eventually assigned to the Williams Street Residential Reentry Center, a local halfway house, and after seeing a presentation by a CrossPurpose recruiter, she signed up for what was then a year-long program; it now lasts six months. In her words, "That's when things started to change."

As its name implies, CrossPurpose has religious roots. "We were started by a local church, Providence Bible Church," Ngatia notes, "and there are two facets of the program. One is non-denominational — we get funding from private donor groups and community members who want to make a difference in people's lives — and the other one is faith-based. For those of us who run the program, our faith is what motivates us to do the work, but you don't have to have any sort of faith to be in the program. It's not a disqualifier, and we don't push you one way or the other. In the faith-based program, we're more up front, but in the non-faith-based one, we do the same work."

CrossPurpose clients are referred to as "leaders" because "they're leading their own change," Ngatia says, while community volunteers are referred to as "allies."

Among the areas of focus Ngatia lists are "interview skills, résumé building, how to present yourself, professional dress, handshake greetings. And every Wednesday night, we have what we call family gatherings — a meal where leaders and allies come together. Sometimes there's a topic, but a lot of times it's just everyone encouraging each other on their journey, because a lot of the people come from similar situations. Half of it is changing your social network to not get into the same problems, and spending time instead with people who want to better their lives, just like you. That's one of the really powerful parts of the program."

click to enlarge Rochelle Ngatia is a career coach at CrossPurpose. - CROSSPURPOSE
Rochelle Ngatia is a career coach at CrossPurpose.
For Lavaka, moving toward more positive associations wasn't easy. "A few people from my old group of friends were like, 'Oh, you think you're better than us,' or 'Oh, you're too good to hang out with us' — things along those lines. So I was having to deal with an emotional roller coaster, the ups and downs of that. I questioned myself about whether I was making the right decision. Now, two and a half years after being released from jail, I realize I did. But during that process, I was questioning myself all the time. And I think being in the corporate legal world was a challenge, because it pushed me out of my comfort zone. CrossPurpose helped me with a few suits and blazers, some work shoes, and at first, it felt so weird. But now, wearing sweats and a hoodie is weird to me."

In addition, "I had to learn to budget my money and how to be patient. Waiting two weeks for a paycheck is fine now. I had to learn how to use a calendar, structure appointments and use my alarm clock, because the way I used to live, there was no time frame, no boss. I didn't have to be at work at a certain time. So I had to reprogram my brain to a new way of living."

At the same time, she discovered that she could repurpose some old experiences in new ways. Within a month of starting a job at Nordstrom Rack, the manager "put me into the cash room, where I was creating money bags for the next day and creating deposits for the store. The feedback she gave me was, 'Even though you used money in an illegal way in your old lifestyle, you're good with money,' and I do have a thing for accounting and money and numbers. So putting me in that field, which my manager did, really opened my eyes."

This discovery is more common than most people might expect, Ngatia confirms. "When we're helping leaders with their résumés, a lot of them will say, 'I never worked a job.' We'll ask, 'What kinds of things have you done? Are you good at managing money? Keeping track of details?' If you're a single mom, you've been coordinating households, and that's a transferable skill. There are a lot of things people are good at that they don't even think about, and we try to bring light to that — to take something you've always been told is wrong or awful and transfer it into a positive dynamic."

This is among the messages Lavaka plans to pass along to the next generation of CrossPurpose leaders; as Ngatia proudly points, she's coming back to the program as an ally. She also has an idea for her own nonprofit that she plans to bring up at an upcoming pitch session that's become a regular part of the CrossPurpose package. In her words, "I want to help others who've traveled down the road I've traveled and help them see that you really can change your life. You can't change what happened, but you can definitely change your future."