Tristen Coleman has had more setbacks than most 27-year-olds. He witnessed the shooting death of his uncle when he was 5, was hit by a stray bullet as a young man and spent more than three years in prison.
“I chose to do bad things to come across a little money, or what not, and it cost me,” said Coleman. “And I had to pay my debt to society, and I did that.”
Now, the Omaha native is determined to become a force of “positivity” in his northside neighborhood. In December, he graduated from an intensive, 11-week program at Interface Web School. He immediately embarked on a paid internship building websites for Omaha radio stations 95.7 FM and 1690 AM.
It’s a significant step on Coleman’s road back to success, and he has plenty of people pulling for him.
“I love that guy,” said Othello Meadows, who first gave Coleman a job registering voters in 2008. “I just want him to have every opportunity and for his family to have every opportunity that his hard work will provide.”
Tristen has the potential to “show other people that it’s possible, that there are other ways to feel successful,” said Shonna Dorsey, co-founder and managing director of Interface.
The code school trains Web developers and designers. Its aim is to meet the growing technology needs of the Omaha job market. Many Interface students are midcareer professionals looking for additional job training, and Dorsey said that she can’t be sure how many come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Coleman just happens to be open about his history.
Students at Interface build websites for nonprofit organizations as part of the course. It was a coincidence that one of the potential projects for Coleman’s group was a website for 75 North, a community development organization in the neighborhood where he grew up.
Coleman already was working for the organization providing lawn maintenance services for the Highlander, a mixed-income housing development being built by 75 North. Meadows, executive director of 75 North, has known Coleman for years.
“Tristen is a guy that is really difficult not to like, in large part because of his sincerity, his openness about the good, the bad and everything in between,” Meadows said “There’s a vulnerability there to him that is endearing. He worked really hard because I think he saw some purpose or utility to the work we were doing. When he’s really into something, he’s all into it.”
Coleman is quick to point out that he grew up surrounded by a large and loving family. He said they were middle class, but there were some hard times.
Coleman attended the Jesuit Middle School (now Jesuit Academy) and was encouraged by his mother to continue his high school education at Creighton Prep. He said she wanted to show him that, “even in an inner-city community, I could still become something.”
Restless and eager to make money, Coleman tried his hand at being an entrepreneur, but not in the right way. While at Creighton Prep, he said, he got into trouble for re-selling secondhand textbooks that had been swiped from the lost and found or from unattended lockers.
Coleman said that he was given the option to attend Boys Town for a year before returning to Prep. Instead, he decided to go to public school. After being caught stealing again, he was sent to a juvenile detention center, where he completed his GED.
Eventually, he got himself back on track and enrolled at Metro Community College. A lifelong interest in computers and video games led him to information technology classes.
“I loved the program, man, it was good,” he said. “I learned a lot, you know, had a lot of good connections and everything.”
Then, in 2009, he was riding around in a car with friends when he was hit by a stray bullet.
“The only thing on my mind was, ‘Don’t panic.’ My body told me I was shot, but my mind was telling me, ‘Don’t panic,’ ” said Coleman.
The bullet pierced his lung, and he still bears its scar on his upper back. He recovered but said the incident triggered depression. He believes it contributed to his committing armed robbery at a Big Red Keno in May 2010.
“It was pretty much for a fast buck. I was just going in debt. Rent due and I was in school. I couldn’t focus because I had bills. I felt like I had a lot on my plate at that time,” said Coleman. “I just felt like a lot of odds were stacked against me then.”
He was convicted and spent three and half years in prison.
“As I was doing my time, I was like, ‘Instead of trying to hurt people and take from people, what’s a way that I could maybe get paid … what could I do in a more positive manner?’ ” Coleman said.
In prison, he decided not to socialize with other inmates, instead reading books about business, history and spirituality.
Once released, he returned to community college but was frustrated with the pace. Coleman also became a father, and the need to make a living became even more urgent.
Meadows said, “You know, I think when people come home from prison, they’re looking for things that have a short runway, they need to get back to earning money, and they don’t want to do what they were doing before.”
He was surprised to learn that Coleman had been in so much trouble but still wanted to help him get his life in order and start a lawn care business.
“His willingness to own all that — I was like, ‘Well, that’s water under the bridge. How do I help you now?’ ” said Meadows.
Coleman said Meadows “was trying to teach me how to start a business the right way.”
Meadows introduced him to Julia Parker at the Omaha Small Business Network, thinking they would work on a business plan for his lawn care company. Parker introduced him to Dorsey and Interface Web School.
To fund the course, Coleman worked out a payment plan and set up a GoFundMe account.
After graduation, he was promptly hired as a Web developer by William King Jr., CEO of Omaha Community Broadcasting and co-founder of 97.5 FM and 1690 AM. It’s a paid internship funded by Heartland Workforce Solutions and Goodwill Industries.
“If we don’t (employ past offenders), there’s no alternative, they’ll repeat the same behaviors that they’re trying to change,” said King, a former probation officer. “It’s very important to practice the principles of Christianity, to forgive.”
Coleman’s willingness to reach out for help and guidance has impressed his new boss.
Dorsey said she has visited Coleman at work, and “he’s always trying to figure out how to do other things and stretch his knowledge.”
Coleman’s pride in his newfound career is evident. He is co-parenting his two young sons and hopes to create educational games for children.
“I’m building websites so I feel good,” he said. “But now I know I’m not done learning. Before I’m 40, I want to have some kind of concept of a video game.”
The internship ends in a few weeks, and King said he is planning to hire Coleman as a part-time Web developer for the station. Coleman is also pursuing freelance work, and he is excited about building websites for small businesses and local musical artists.
“It’s great motivation to wake up every morning to know that you’re actually making a change and doing something good for the community,” he said.
Coleman said “being more family bound” is one way he stays focused on his goals. “On the weekends I try not to work too much. I try to have a personal life because I missed out on my life (in prison). I just took my kids to the Children’s Museum and the circus.”
He’ll also be able to tap into services at Goodwill Industries for at least another three and a half years if he needs support. Regina Bell is the business outreach manager for Goodwill Industries, and she’s known Coleman for about five years.
“The motivation is there to be a provider for his family, the motivation to have a career that’s going to be a lucrative career,” Bell said. “He’s doing exactly what we need him to do to be successful.”