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From Empty to Full: A Justice-Impacted Father’s Journey

The birth of Rick Mannen’s daughter, Delaney, in 2019 was the moment Rick solidified his commitment to turning his life around. Having a daughter gave him a new perspective on life. Rick loved Delaney from the moment he saw her, and threw himself into doing all the things he hadn’t been able to do for his son, Noah: changing diapers, feeding her, being there for milestones. Rick’s journey leading up to and for several of the beginning years of his fatherhood had been extremely challenging. His parenting redemption lies in his newly-found access and ability to spend intentional and quality time with his four-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son.

Rick Mannen (middle) with his son, Noah (left), and daughter, Delaney, at the playground.

Today, Delaney points to a small pile of grass and twigs, exclaiming, “Look Daddy, it’s an ant playground!” Rick admires it and remarks on the “grandpa ant” scuttling around. Delaney repeats her father’s words, giggles, and goes back to building her creation. As Delaney and Noah are playing in the park, their attentive father keeps a watchful eye on them as he maintains the conversation for this interview. Despite his unwavering attention and love for his children, no observer would fathom the incredible journey Rick had undertaken to reach this point in his life.

Always the New Kid

Although Rick has fond memories of his childhood - carefree days playing with his friends, hopping over fences, and running barefoot with farm dogs in Irving, TX - life got a lot tougher for Rick when he was in second grade. His parents’ divorce shattered the stability he had known, and his mother’s subsequent remarriage meant a life of constant upheaval and relocation. Culture shock hit hard when Rick, his mother, and his stepfather moved to Cincinnati, OH. Rick was used to roaming freely outdoors and wasn’t prepared to adapt to the confines of city life. It was also the first time he, a white kid, had ever had so many Black neighbors, as Black people consist of 40.3% of the population of Cincinnati. He had grown up mainly around Hispanic or Latino people, a community that makes up nearly half the total population of Irving, TX.

At the age of eleven, the trajectory of Rick’s life was forever altered after learning of his father’s death by suicide. Rick was devastated. His mother and stepfather were unequipped to talk to him about the unbearable pain he felt, leaving it to fester inside him. He grew resentful of his stepfather, angry that he was there but his father wasn’t. Looking back, Rick recognizes that these feelings partially stemmed from his inability to healthily express the emotional turmoil churning inside him.

The instability continued as Rick's family continued relocating, first to Pottstown, PA before settling in Middle River, MD (in Eastern Baltimore County) when Rick was in middle school. Although he got used to being the new kid, he hated continually leaving his old life behind and adapting to life in a new city. Rick found some refuge in making art, primarily drawing, and made a few friends by playing basketball and soccer. However, feeling part of the community he lived in was always out of reach. Worse, he was starting to feel like he didn’t belong in his own family. His relationship with his stepfather grew unbearably strained, which was taking a toll on his mother. Rick felt that the best way to keep the peace was to leave home at the age of 14.

From Empty to Full

Rick did what was necessary to survive; for a while, he bounced back and forth between being homeless and in prison. Eventually, he learned he was going to be a father. However, his life pretty much stayed the same over the next few years after his son, Noah, was born in 2009. Rick says he felt completely unprepared for fatherhood and didn’t know how to be there for his son. On top of being in and out of prison, he was haunted by the sudden death of his own father and his struggles with his stepfather.

Left to right: Delaney, Rick, and Noah at the Out For Justice office.

In retrospect, Rick laments missing so many of Noah’s early childhood years and milestones. Recalling the early days of his fatherhood journey, he is reminded of strict prison regulations that made connecting with Noah even more tenuous. Phone calls were expensive, rushed, and restricted to certain hours, so Rick was often unable to connect with his son on the phone. Prison visits were, in some cases, too scary or otherwise emotional for a young child, and prison rules forbade physical contact between Rick and his son. “You can’t hug them. It hurts. You don’t want your kids to see you like that and you don’t want to be a burden,” Rick says, his voice cracking.

When Rick was released in 2016, he wasted no time in rebuilding his relationship with Noah and Noah’s mother. He knew he had missed out on a lot of Noah’s life and that it had been hard for Noah’s mother to raise him on her own. Though he didn’t give up, navigating parenthood on this side of the walls was also difficult for Rick. He explains, “It took awhile for me to get back in there with him. I can’t repair the wounds but I’m grateful that I’ve been able to have conversations with him that I couldn’t have with my own father.” Those open, honest conversations have led to healing for both Rick and his son. Rick never had anyone to speak freely with about his struggles when he was a child, so he wants Noah to know that he’s always there for him.

At times it’s been hard, Rick admits, especially when it comes to co-parenting, but he is committed to living a life of integrity, growth, and continual learning. His mission is for his children to experience life to the fullest, experience opportunities he never had, and pursue their deepest passions. From going to the library to expanding their creativity through various types of art, to spending time in nature and outdoors in general, Rick keeps his children engaged. “My job is to teach them. Teach them to do it for themselves. I’m doing for my children what my mentors told me - you can’t pour from an empty cup,” he explains.

Leading with Passion

Additionally, Rick started making a difference in the lives of youth and returning citizens who have experienced hardships. He founded a mentorship program called Looking Out For Little Johnny that provides educational programs, leadership opportunities, and activities for youth and returning citizens. The name honors the grandson of a woman who took Rick under her wing when he came home from prison, looking out for him in every way, and Rick strives to do the same for every young person who needs a leg up. “This is us looking out for all the Little Johnnys. I was Little Johnny before he was even born,” Rick explains.

Rick (middle) speaking at an Out For Justice member meeting, alongside other members.

Rick honors his mentors’ advice by keeping his own cup full. He’s an artist by trade and loves what he does, so it doesn’t feel like work. He also leads an initiative to help justice-impacted people regain their constitutional rights through #StopThe5on5, which sprouted from his experience working in the PRISM (Prisoner Rights Information System of Maryland) program while he was behind the walls. #StopThe5on5 seeks to right the injustice of a 2009 Maryland General Assembly law being misinterpreted and misapplied, resulting in over 200 incarcerated people per year being forced to serve their full sentences in prison without the option of parole. Rick knows how painful it is for people to be forcibly separated from their families and he’s working hard to make sure people who are eligible to be conditionally released from prison are being given that right. As an active Out For Justice member, Rick also supports other member-led initiatives to advocate for legal system reform.

Life is an ongoing journey of learning and growth for Rick. It’s not easy coping with the ongoing trauma resulting from a complicated childhood, rebuilding relationships with loved ones, and the barriers of reentry, but Rick is facing these challenges head-on. He has learned that the best way to face your struggles is, to be honest and open about them. And doing it with his kids by his side. Rick is there for his children. And that’s the dad Noah and Delaney know, love, and are growing up to emulate.

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