MGA Becomes Part of a Remarkable Young Man’s ‘Second Chance’

Author: Sheron Smith
Posted: Monday, August 5, 2019 12:00 AM
Categories: Pressroom | School of Aviation | School of Computing | Students

Macon, GA

L-R: Steven C. Teske, chief judge of Clayton County Juvenile Court, and MGA graduate student William Lewis at a recent appearance at Mercer University School of Law, where they talked to students about juvenile justice reform. Photo courtesy of William Lewis.

Among William Lewis’s few good memories of growing up in Clayton County are the times he watched in amazement as passenger jets climbed into the sky after takeoff or came in for landings at nearby Hartsfield–Jackson International Airport.

Years later, under circumstances he could never have imagined as a child, he drew on those images when he chose to major in aviation at Middle Georgia State University (MGA). What it took for the now 24-year-old to even have such a choice is nothing short of a miracle.

It’s a multilayered story involving his family’s poverty, his constant moves – forced by economic and other circumstances - from one public housing space or rundown rental to another, destroying any hope of an even moderately safe and stable boyhood. It’s a too-familiar narrative of a youngster with no positive male role models who joined gangs as a means of survival and did whatever else he could to navigate surroundings drenched in crime, drug addiction, and racial profiling.

Lewis is the seventh of his mother’s nine children. One of his brothers is dead, murdered when Lewis was a baby.

“You can maybe imagine what it was like to live in a two-room apartment in public housing with that many kids,” Lewis, who finished his bachelor’s degree last year, said in a recent interview. “We lived on food stamps and all of our clothes came from thrift stores. I remember going to school and seeing kids with new clothes and getting picked on every day for my clothes. I don’t even know how to describe the constant anger I felt.”

His anger first manifested as a record of disciplinary problems in elementary school and then, as he got a little older, drove him into informal gangs of young teenagers who stole from others so they could buy trendier clothes and whatever else they wanted. Lewis said he was also motivated by a desire to help his mother make ends meet.

According to Lewis, he faced his first formal charge - for theft - when he was 14. Within a year, he found himself in juvenile custody awaiting his fate for a subsequent charge of robbery.

When he appeared in Clayton County Juvenile Court for his formal sentencing, his public defender told him to expect three years at a Regional Youth Detention Center.

“My mom was there crying, but I kept telling myself, ‘Whatever happens, don’t let them see you cry,’” Lewis said. “I saw the judge come out. He’s a white guy and I’m a black kid, so I thought, ‘Let’s just get this over with. Give me my three years.’”

First Impression

What Lewis didn’t know was that the judge, Steven C. Teske, had already reviewed his file and knew his background. Lewis also didn’t know at the time that Teske, who is chief judge of Clayton County Juvenile Court, is nationally known for his advocacy of rehabilitation-based justice for young offenders and his efforts to reduce racial disparities in sentencing. Not long ago, an Atlanta Journal Constitution columnist wrote about Teske and his decision to end the practice of kids being brought into his courtrooms in shackles, images he believes invoke the slave era and can be especially traumatizing to black youth and their families. The judge continues to work to get the practice banned statewide and throughout the country.

From Lewis’s file, Teske unearthed seeds of leadership ability and academic promise, the teen’s disciplinary issues and spotty school attendance notwithstanding. Teske believed the young man who appeared in front him in his courtroom that day could achieve some “great and magnificent things” in the future if given a chance.

“You’re a really smart kid,” Teske, in a recent interview, recalled telling Lewis. “If I don’t sentence you to prison, will you start using those smarts to take a different path?”

Whatever gets me out of here, Lewis thought to himself. To Teske, he simply replied, “Yes, sir.”

With that, the judge entered Lewis into Clayton County Juvenile Court’s 18-month “Second Chance” program.


As part of the program, Lewis served probation at home. He was allowed to attend a new school wearing an ankle monitor. Second Chance includes cognitive behavioral therapy, an intense process of helping participants reorient their negative thinking and patterns of behavior. Over time, Lewis took the therapy seriously and worked to change his mindset and manage his anger.

At his new high school, he rediscovered an aptitude for math. His teacher marveled at his skills, especially given how much formal instruction he had missed.

He also attended mandatory Second Chance sessions where adults in various professions counseled the participants on topics such as job interviewing, dressing professionally, managing money, and more. Interacting with positive role models and mentors, including Teske, gave Lewis hope he could turn his life around.

In 2013, Lewis graduated from high school. He allowed himself to think college was a possibility, and after tapping into the childhood memory of watching planes taking off and landing he researched aviation programs. That’s how he discovered Middle Georgia State, home to Georgia’s only public four-year School of Aviation.


For most people, the road back from adversity is seldom without missteps and ground lost.

Away from the imposed discipline of the Second Chance program, Lewis took up again with some of his old peers. Following another arrest for residential burglary, a charge later expunged, he spent some months in an adult prison.

“I was so disappointed in myself,” Lewis said. “I felt I was getting close to where I needed to be but I guess I wasn’t close enough.”

He was 18, the youngest man in his prison dorm. He woke up nearly every morning to the clamor of inmates fighting over the pettiest of slights. “Real nonsense,” Lewis said.

To cope, he joined a prison ministry program and soon began to draw from his newfound faith. One of his prayers was this: “There has to be something better for me. I want more out of life.”

After his release, and with help from Teske and others, Lewis renewed his focus. A metro Atlanta hotel hired him for the cleaning staff, a job he loathed, but it pushed him to do more, be more. He navigated the labyrinth of filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). He aced the Compass placement test and began applying to colleges, settling on Middle Georgia State and an aviation management major.

In 2014, Lewis became the first member of his family to enroll in college.

“The first semester he was in my class he mentioned to me that he had not come from a good situation,” said Lisa Henry, an MGA assistant professor of air traffic management. “I told him he could leave that behind and just begin anew, that he didn’t have to be the person he had been. I didn’t really know all the details of his background until later, but I’m so impressed with how he has turned his life around and is now trying to pay it forward and help other youth.”

New Direction

When he chose an aviation management major, Lewis was thinking he might like to pursue a career in airport security. But then he started getting invitations to speak about his life experiences at gatherings of various civic, non-profit, and professional groups.

Teske took him to a conference of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges in San Diego, where Lewis shared his background with a room full of jurists and described his time in the Second Chance program. More opportunities followed. Today, through several organizations, Lewis advocates for or works directly with youngsters who have backgrounds similar to his. The organizations include the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council State Advisory Group Youth Subcommittee, United Way’s Brighter Future Leadership Council Clayton, and Hearts to Nourish Hope.

Whether any of that leads to a long-term career, Lewis isn’t yet sure. To give himself a wider variety of professional choices, he enrolled in MGA’s online master’s degree program in cybersecurity and is thinking of going for a Ph.D. He continues to make his home in Clayton County.

For now, he wants to build on his involvement in the various organizations and help as many youth as he can. It’s worth noting that some of the progress Lewis has made came as he grieved the loss of his best friend, who was also moving forward from a troubled past, only to be gunned down merely for trying to retrieve his iPad from the person who stole it.

“When you see things like drugs and prostitution all around you from a young age, it’s very hard to overcome growing up in that kind of environment,” Lewis said. “Most people who don’t grow up like that have no idea how hard it is. Even if you manage to make some progress, bad things can happen to you when you’re minding your own business. All I can do is try to help young boys see that there is a whole other world out there, that they don’t have to be confined to one place.”

Lewis and Teske are now close friends. The judge and his wife drove to Macon to attend Lewis’s MGA graduation in spring 2018 and cried as they watched him walk across the stage to collect his diploma.

“I may have helped create the environment that gave him choices,” Teske said, “but it was up to him to seize them, and he’s doing that. He’s only 24, he’s still growing, but I am so proud of him. I still get emotional talking about him.”

As if on cue, Teske’s voice cracked. He paused for a long moment before speaking again.

“I love that kid.”