If Terry Byrd is behind the counter when you visit Dough Nation in downtown Tampa, you’re in for a special treat that goes beyond the eatery’s cookie-dough-and-ice-cream concoctions.
On a recent afternoon, Byrd throws out cheerful salutations as customers trickle into the Tampa Street store seeking sweet refuge from the hot midday sun.
"Hi, welcome to Dough Nation," he says in a booming voice. He then goes into salesman mode, ticking off the cookie dough and ice cream flavors in an effort to help patrons with a conflicted sweet tooth settle on a combination.
"I’m a people person," said Byrd, "People come to the store and they love my personality."
It’s easy to see that Byrd genuinely loves his job, said Justine Burke, senior director of marketing and communications for Metropolitan Ministries, which owns Dough Nation as part of its social enterprise program.
The nonprofit holds it Bridge Builders Luncheon on April 25, and it will be catered by people who went through the same program Byrd completed.
"He’s a good example of why we do what we do what we do," Burke said. "I love how happy he is and I love the joy in his face."
These days, Byrd, 29, gets satisfaction from making other people smile. It’s a stark contrast from his past.
Byrd started on a path of crime when he was arrested for petty theft at age 13.
But the experience didn’t prompt Byrd to correct his behavior; instead he continued to steal and bullied his peers at school – when he attended.
Robbing others was a power trip, he said.
"I was trying to conquer the world," he said. "I could have anything I wanted, I could just take it. My mindset was so corrupt. I only cared for myself."
Byrd said his actions frustrated his parents.
"I came up with a family that loved me and they cared for me," he said. "They did everything to teach me right from wrong."
Looking back, Byrd said his acting out can be traced to feelings of abandonment. When he was young, his mother left him in the care of his father and stepmother and cut off communication between them. Attempts over the years to repair that relationship have come up short.
"I tried to start a relationship," he said. "But she’s not trying to meet me halfway."
Byrd said his feelings of inadequacy fed his need to terrorize others. He didn’t know any other way to express his desire for acceptance, he said.
"I always wanted to fit in," he said. "I had to be that kid to stand out."
By the time Byrd was 17, he had dropped out of school and was hanging out on the streets. That same year, he was arrested on charges of burglary, fraud, and forgery. But instead of a stay in a group home for wayward boys, Byrd was sent to prison.
In prison, Byrd kept up his same destructive behaviors and was fighting constantly and rotating in and out of solitary confinement.
"I had to put on a reputation," he said. "I had to stand my ground."
Byrd said it was after talking with another inmate that he was inspired to change.
"It was like he planted a seed inside me," he said. "I came to a point where I said ‘I’m done. This is not what I wanted.’"
After three years, Byrd was released. He was trying to rebuild his life when, four years later, he returned to prison after violating his probation.
Byrd’s second stint would be dramatically different from his first. After a spiritual experience helped him overcome depression and suicidal feelings, Byrd said he plunged deeper into his Christian faith. He joined the prison choir and attended weekly Bible study. He also sought out opportunities to improve himself, such as joining Toastmasters to improve his communication skills.
Byrd said he realized his talent for cooking and pleasing others when he was assigned kitchen duty.
His fellow inmates devoured whatever he made but showed special affinity for his barbecue chicken and ribs, he said.
"Everyone loved my cooking," he said. "They loved how I put my heart into it."
It took a stay in prison before Byrd realized helping others feel good fed his spirit.
"You can build character in prison and it can help you rebuild," he said. "It made me who I am. I chose to do right when I was on the inside … so I would do right on the outside."
After his release last year, Byrd returned to Tampa and enrolled in Abe Brown Ministries’s Ready 4 Work training program where he developed interviewing and other job preparation skills.
Debraca Russell, Byrd’s job coach at Abe Brown Ministries, called him a "go-getter type of student" who tackles obstacles.
"You (have to) motivate Terry one time," she said. "I don’t believe there’s anything stopping Terry."
When a chance to join Metropolitan Ministries’s Inside the Box Culinary Arts Program came around, Byrd jumped.
He graduated from the program last September and then hired in at Dough Nation. Now, he’s got his eye on a management position and wants to someday own a restaurant.
Once on the wrong path, Byrd is thankful for the experiences that have put him back on track.
"I missed so many things in life," he said. "I paid the price. But I learned from there and moved on."
Now, it’s time to give back and that means helping others avoid the pitfalls he did.
"If I can do all of this unafraid, anybody can do it," he said. "You have to be willing to give everything to be successful. That same air you breathe through your lungs? That’s how bad you have to want it."
Contact Kenya Woodard at [email protected]