Leavenworth's mayor, Jermaine Wilson, is uniquely positioned to, as he puts it, bring voice to the voiceless and hope to the hopeless. The new mayor was once a convicted felon.
His swearing-in on January 8, he said, felt as if he was living in a dream.
"And I know God gave me another chance. And to see that the people gave me another chance … I was just overwhelmed with unexplainable joy," Wilson told KCUR's Gina Kaufmann on Central Standard.
He was elected to the Leavenworth City Commission as mayor pro-tem in 2017. Earlier this month, other city commissioners unanimously voted him in as mayor.
Wilson grew up in Leavenworth with both parents and an older brother he admired. But his home was in government housing, he said, and crime was a part of his everyday life.
"I started doing what everybody else was doing: getting into drugs, ripping and running the streets, getting in fights, kicked out of school, ran away from home, and I was incarcerated at 15," Wilson said.
He tried to escape from the juvenile detention facility, which upped his two-year sentence to four. When he was free again at 19, he sold and used drugs.
"Once you start getting money, of course you start getting power, then you get influence, and now everybody’s leaning on you," he said.
He knew he had leadership qualities, but at the time, "I’m leading them down the wrong way instead of a positive way."
He was eventually arrested and charged with a felony.
In prison, he said, he was alone with his Bible, surrounded by killers, rapists, and thieves. He used his time behind bars to sober up, he said.
"My mind got clear, I started to focus on the things that really mattered. My son was eight months old and I had neglected my responsibilities."
It seemed his two options were to spend the rest of his life in prison or end up dead.
"And that's when I cried out to God: 'God, if you’re real, speak to my heart, change my heart.' I knew that I could never go back and change the hands of time, but I knew I could be productive and make a difference by moving forward. I wanted that. I didn’t want to hurt anybody else," Wilson said.
So, he set his mind to improving himself.
"I just had to continue to study, prepare myself every single day, knowing that one day I was going to be free. And when that time came for me to be free, I was able to apply everything that I had learned while I was in prison."
His criminal record was expunged in 2015.
After he got out of prison, Wilson used his natural leadership abilities to start a nonprofit called the Unity in the Community Movement, which mentors youth, serves the homeless, and works to strengthen the relationship between the community and local law enforcement.
He also went back in to the correctional system to speak with adult and juvenile inmates. He wanted to tell his story to anyone who would listen, thinking that might help prevent others from repeating his mistakes. After talking about his life, he tells inmates that with "dedication, determination, and discipline" they can turn their lives around.
Seeing his work in the community, a friend suggested that perhaps Wilson could be the mayor one day. The idea struck him as unrealistic at the time, maybe even undesirable. But, when his wife, Jessica, encouraged him, he gave the idea more thought.
As mayor, Wilson said, he’ll continue to strengthen ties between the community and law enforcement. He also wants to help people who feel they aren’t being heard. Tenants whose landlords refuse to make repairs, for instance.
"To be able to fulfill a request of a citizen, you know, that moment is priceless. To see a smile on a citizen's face who didn’t think they had a voice, didn’t think they had any one who cared or was concerned about their issues."
Helping others, he said, brings peace to his heart.
Listen to Jermaine Wilson's entire conversation with Gina Kaufmann on KCUR's Central Standard.