HARTLAND, Maine — R.J. Simonds of Hartland isn’t what most people would call a good kid — but that’s a reality the 18-year-old is trying to change.
“Everyone in this area thinks I’m a piece of crap,” said Simonds recently. “I don’t blame them, but I’m trying to turn things around. I’m trying to turn things around a lot.”
Ever since he was 11 years old, Simonds has been in trouble. He broke into the laundromat and carwash in Hartland and stole DVDs from the town library. He has been caught shoplifting at Renys in Pittsfield and a couple years ago, he and a friend stole an ATV from a local residence and drove it to Waterville, where they abandoned it. Simonds got into so much trouble at Nokomis Regional High School that he was told never to return, he said. At just 18 years old, he has spent a total of eight days in jail, is on probation and owes thousands of dollars in restitution to the victims of his crimes.
Those are just some of the incidents for which he was caught. He said there were many other times when he walked out of a store without paying — most of the time while he was drunk or high on marijuana or pills.
For the most part, R.J. Simonds’ life has not been a pretty picture, but it’s a picture that contrasts markedly from how he spends his days now.
“One day it just hit me,” said Simonds. “I was going nowhere except eventually to prison.”
That was a few months ago. Simonds said he hasn’t smoked pot or taken pills recreationally in several months. He’s seeing a counselor and taking medication for bipolar syndrome — which he says has helped him realize how good life can be. If all goes as planned and if he can conquer the challenge of math, he’ll earn his gen-eral equivalency diploma this spring. He has stopped hanging around with his old friends, spending most of his time with his girlfriend, Ashley Corson of Madison, whom he says he wants to “grow old with.” Most days, the young couple can be found spending time with Brian, Simonds’ nephew who isn’t yet 2 years old. Simonds said the boy needs positive role models in his life — which is at the core of Simonds’ efforts to rehabilitate himself.
“It’s not fun to get arrested,” he said recently, sitting at his mother’s kitchen table in Hartland. “Not being locked away from my family and my girlfriend and seeing my nephew grow up is all that matters to me.”
However much progress Simonds has made toward his personal rehabilitation, he knows that improving his image in a small town such as Hartland won’t be easy. Some of the victims of his crimes — some of whom live within sight of him — have made it clear that they want nothing to do with him.
John Clark, Hartland’s librarian, was among that group after he caught Simonds stealing DVDs. Clark said he initially ushered Simonds to the door and told him bluntly not to return. Then Simonds came back asking for a copy of the Bible. Clark gave him a Bible and threw in a copy of the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book.
“He wanted to clean up his life,” said Clark. “As far as I can tell he’s an example of why giving young people a second chance makes sense sometimes. If I didn’t think he was making a good-faith effort, I wouldn’t let him through the door.”
Simonds said he hoped the Bible would rekindle his belief in God and offer him a path to salvation, but the Alcoholics Anonymous book was a surprise.
“It was kind of an inspiration, that getting off drugs can help you get all the stuff that you want in life,” he said. “It just clicked in my head. Ever since I read that book I haven’t even thought about drugs.”
Donna Simonds, R.J.’s mother, said she and her husband have been saying for years that they wanted him out of the house when he turned 18, but they’ve changed their mind now that they’ve seen their son trying to improve himself.
“He’s changed completely,” she said. “He’s 18 and he’s still here. I think he wants to make a change and do something with his life.”
Donna Simonds said she doesn’t know what went wrong with her son, though she suspects exposure to lead at an early age has a lot to do with some of his problems. At any rate, she’s proud of his progress. She said when it snows, R.J. bundles up and walks around with a shovel, clearing driveways for people he knows can use the help. In many cases, they never know R.J. was there — just that they came home to a scraped-off driveway.
“I don’t care if they know it was me,” he said. “It feels good just to help someone out.”
Eric Hansen, superintendent of the Mountain View Youth Development Center in Charleston — where Simonds said he has been more than once — said though he couldn’t discuss Simonds specifically because of confidentiality laws, the young man’s troubled history as represented to him by a reporter isn’t unlike that of thou-sands of other Mainers. Hansen said a young person’s chances of making a change is about 80 percent — better than most people think.
“The sooner we start turning the corner with these kids, the better results we’re seeing,” he said. “There’s really no silver bullet, but one of the major challenges is making kids understand and believe that they can change.”
Hansen said every case is different, but what makes the difference for many youth offenders is having people outside the corrections system who are supportive — such as Simonds’ parents and librarian John Clark.
“Rehabilitating kids isn’t just an institutional problem,” said Hansen. “The community at large has to take some responsibility for these kids because it could happen to any kid.”
Hansen said the biggest challenge for a person in Simonds’ situation isn’t improving himself, but proving to others that he has made a change.
“That’s one of the toughest challenges these kids have to overcome,” said Hansen.
Simonds said his first goal is to find work that will help him pay off his fines and restitution.
“Hopefully, people will start to have a different view of me,” he said. “If it does work, then it does. If it doesn’t, I’m still going to live my life every day. I want to see where my life can take me.”
Anyone interested in hiring Simonds, particularly for physical labor, may reach him by calling 612-9802.