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When I got arrested at the age of 14 years old, I automatically categorized myself as a reject. I was given a life sentence as well as a blow to my faith in humankind. But even during the beginning years of my incarceration, as I consciously broke the rules in the name of rebellion, I subconsciously continued to work toward my true long-term goal: salvation.

I attended groups, went to college and earned a certificate, so when my life fell apart in 2015 and many of my loved ones passed on, I already had a rock to begin to build the foundation of my new life upon.

Every leader begins as a follower. I was a follower, too. I followed impulses, which led me to incarceration. I followed temptation, which led me to disaster. I followed the ways of the world, which will lead us all to destruction.

It’s easy to give up. It’s simple to be disheartened by negative newscasters and terrified by these troublesome times in today’s world. But if we all choose to wave our white flags in surrender, surely only then will we all perish.

You may wonder how a common criminal such as myself may plan to save the world. The answer can be found in how I saved myself: I changed. I adapted. I believed.

If I am permitted to once more enter the free world one day, I will change one life for every day of the rest of my own life. Whether it be as big as donating to a foundation, or as small as smiling at a stranger, I will share my love. Love changes hearts. It heals souls.

I will also adapt to the mindset of unfiltered, unfailing acceptance. I will accept my neighbor as they are. I will accept that this fight against human despair will not be resolved by me in my lifetime, but by generations to come who will hopefully hear my words and be influenced to do the right things.

I will most definitely, and most importantly, believe as well. I will believe in my abilities, and in my power to set a good example to follow. I will believe in a Higher Power that will hold humanity, including myself, together against all odds and even when we are at our weakest. 

Finally, I will believe that the person reading these words I now write will be empowered enough to find the inner strength to break away from the habits of following and become a leader themselves. 

I began as a desolate, lost, wandering soul. At 14, I took a life and attempted to throw mine away at the same time. But that was selfish. The best and only thing I can do for my victims now is to live my life in their names.

I plan to dedicate my life to living instead of dying. I plan to start small and grow big. I plan on beginning a chain reaction that will both include and preserve us all.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Heather D’Aoust is a nonbinary writer, artist and author of two books, who also publishes under the pen name Jeff-Free. A practicing Buddhist, D'Aoust is incarcerated in California.