NORTH LAWNDALE — A West Sider who was incarcerated as a teen is being honored for becoming a business owner as a young man.
Deshawn Nelson, 23, will be awarded the Lawndale Christian Legal Center’s Emerging Leader Award at the holistic legal aid group’s annual benefit, the Justice Rising Gala. The gala is dedicated to the pursuit of justice, equity and transformative opportunity for young people on the West Side.
The gala, which includes a fundraiser, is 6 p.m. Thursday. The in-person event is sold out, but virtual tickets are available online.
Nelson owns Mr. Nelson’s Movers, a moving company he launched with a single truck in 2020. In less than two years, he’s grown his business to three trucks and four employees.
“I was actually proud of myself. I bought a moving truck. It felt good for the first time. People were surprised I actually did it,” Nelson said.
Nelson said his father died in a house fire in 2012. The struggle of coping with that loss is partly why he started selling drugs when he was in the eighth grade, he said. He was arrested and jailed multiple times as a teenager, and he struggled to find a job and support himself after he was released, he said.
That experience motivated him to start his own business.
“It started when I came home from jail. I was ready to be legit. I got tired of getting denied from jobs I applied to. My background was so bad, they never gave me a chance,” he said.
Lawndale Christian Legal Center, which represented Nelson in some of his legal cases as a teen, helped him find his first job cleaning up the neighborhood after he was released. The organization connected him with a mentor and resources like mental health services and professional development opportunities.
Nelson spent two years working on himself, shifting his mindset and unraveling the issues that landed him in trouble in the first place, he said.
“My outlook was very different. I just wanted to make money. I never thought about nothing else. I never thought about the bad things that could happen to me,” Nelson said.
Nelson’s mentor and support from neighborhood groups like UCAN and North Lawndale Employment Network helped him visualize the type of life he wanted and make progress toward launching his business.
“It was really just having a mentor who could tell me I could improve myself. I really needed a person to tell me that and guide me,” Nelson said.
The young entrepreneur also makes it a point to hire others who have a criminal history. Half of Nelson’s employees were once incarcerated; as his company grows, he wants to continue to prioritize those who need a second chance, he said.
Nelson also wants to inspire other young people and guide them toward improving their circumstances, he said.
“What inspires me the most is seeing other young people trying as well to start their own business. Multiple people [send me messages] me asking me how to start this. That pushes me to keep going,” Nelson said.
Nelson also lost his mother in 2019. He keeps a photograph of her in his moving truck to remind him of why he works so hard each day to improve himself and create opportunities to help people who come from similar circumstances. When his parents were still living, his potential to accomplish great things was always overshadowed by the mistakes he made. Mr. Nelson’s Movers is his way of honoring their memory and living a life they would be proud of, he said.
“The main reason I started everything was for my mom. She always saw the bad things I did outside. That pushes me to keep going harder,” Nelson said.
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