Raul Baez didn’t feel loved as a child. He held in the bitterness he felt as a victim of sexual and physical abuse. But when he couldn’t contain his anger any longer, he hit the streets, self-medicating with drugs as a teenager. That run lasted almost 25 years, a life he lived under pure madness and chaos.
Raul married young, and his oldest son fell into the trap of drugs as well. In 1993, his 17-year-old was killed selling drugs in the Bronx. “I saw all the signs and I totally ignored it,” says Raul. “I had a lot of guilt from that.” His name was Wito and today there is a legacy attached to his name every time Raul walks into a prison as the Executive Director of WITO Inc. to teach financial literacy and the character development principles he used to transform his life.
Before founding WITO, however, Raul’s journey took another turn. Six years after Wito’s death, Raul’s daughter got into a domestic violence situation, and Raul shot the attacker. Thinking he had killed a man, he went on the run and spent the next seven months living on the streets and shelling out about a thousand dollars a day to buy drugs. To fund his addiction, he started committing robberies daily.
But soon Raul would find himself in a situation he couldn’t run from, and he would learn that God was his only source of true freedom from his crime, his guilt, and his anger.
While escaping from his last robbery, Raul fired three shots at responding police officers, hoping to provoke them to shoot him. They returned 32 shots, but not one hit Raul. He fled to an alley where, with a SWAT team surrounding him, he sat pointing his gun to his own head for the next five hours. He was too scared to shoot himself. He hoped someone would do it for him.
When the cold New York weather got the best of him, his finger slipped and he accidentally pulled the trigger. He heard a ringing in his ear and his head ached intensely, but there was no blood. He had missed. “I heard a little voice that gave me peace and comfort that told me to put the gun down,” he recalls. “God was definitely in control. I just didn’t know it at the time.”
Raul learned that the man he had shot seven months earlier had survived. However, he was sentenced to 14 years in prison for armed robbery.
One cold night, Raul and other prisoners were walking the yard. They heard music coming from the chapel, and one prisoner suggested they go in for warmth, coffee, and doughnuts. As they entered, a Prison Fellowship volunteer read Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
He spent the next two years torn between old habits and following Jesus, and he feared what his fellow prisoners would do if he changed. But then, one day, he found himself forced to choose his master. After a falling-out with another prisoner that promised a major, violent confrontation the next day, Raul – exhausted by this pattern – asked God to get him out of the mess. When Raul peacefully confronted the man, he apologized to Raul.
After seeing God’s power, Raul surrendered to Jesus. He got baptized and started attending Prison Fellowship programs. Even though other prisoners ridiculed him for his faith, he stayed strong and slowly gained their respect. God laid it on his heart to start a program for the young men in the prison. He saw many return after being released because they didn’t have the tangible skills to support themselves on the outside without turning to drugs and violence. Raul taught them entrepreneurship and money management skills mixed with character development and included the Gospel whenever he could.
Raul was released from prison two years early. Other prisoners still teach the program based on a manual and curriculum that Raul created. In September 2013, We Innovatively Transform Ourselves (WITO) was launched to teach his program to incarcerated men and women. August 2014 marked Raul’s 4th year outside prison. In addition to WITO he created two businesses that teach financial literacy to minorities and drug prevention to nonprofit organizations. He has an associate’s degree in real estate appraisal and is finishing his bachelor’s degree in personal finance while working as a medical case manager and sharing his faith with his coworkers. Raul’s children have seen him become a new man and have come to know Christ through him.