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Finding ways to help others -- new life of a former prisoner

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At Spindale Elementary School, Ben with his friends and mom Pat Hardin (back row) donate 85 Easter baskets to children in the school's Backpage Program.

Ben Kennedy is the first to admit he's been in a lot of serious trouble during his life that resulted in incarceration in a maximum security prison because of violent behavior. From age 18 to 30 he was in and out of prison. He was also a drug user and was on meth.

He'll also be the first to tell people he is finished with that part of his life and has begun a chapter of "Books Up Guns Down" as a way of trying to give back to the people of Rutherford County. The organization is about educating children and adults of "books up" and putting "guns down."

Ben is the 31-year-old son of Pat Hardin of Green Hill (formerly of Rutherfordton and a long time librarian at Norris Public Library) and the late Wyman Hardin. The Hardins raised Ben and his sister as their own.

Ben is living life with a new beginning. He shared parts of his story recently while distributing Easter baskets for more than 100 children in Rutherford County -- a step to helping others.

At the Department of Social Services (DSS), he was met by several DSS staff members who received 50 baskets to give to the children of their clients.

"We appreciate this so much," said Tiffany Dodd, DSS program manager.

After unloading baskets at DSS, Ben and friends who helped support the project, took 85 baskets to Spindale Elementary School.

"He went to school here," Pat Hardin said as they began unloading the baskets at his former elementary school. "He wants to give something back."

Kimberly Greene, who manages the Backpack Program at Spindale Elementary School, said baskets will be given to children in that program.

His journey to the present

The Hardins took custody of Ben and his young sister after their adoptive parents died within nine months of each other.

Ben said he started calling the Hardins "dad" and "mom" because that is what they were to him.

Later when his biological mother died in a car accident and after seeing his "dad" Wyman Hardin become sick and passing away, Ben said the troubles began.

"It made all my past pain come out. I became disobedient and would fly into violent rages."

He was 12 when he was placed in foster care and later sent to an alternative camp for boys.

From that facility, Ben was placed in juvenile detention and later at Butner, a lockdown facility for men.

From age 18 until age 30, Ben was in and out of jail and was on drugs and meth.

At one time Ben was ordered to spend 21 hours a day in a single cell alone because he assaulted a corrections officer.

It was while in maximum security prison he knew he never wanted to be in such a place again.

"It felt like something was different this time once I got to my home camp Warren CI. I founded Books Up Guns Down and I stayed out of trouble and worked every day on my organization," Ben said.

"Because of the ruthless and heinous crimes I committed in my home, Rutherford County, I wanted to give back. I caused a lot of damage and chaos," he admitted.

Under the umbrella of Books Up Guns Down chapter, Kennedy has also begun a clothes closet and is working on a food pantry to help not only children but adults.

Ben has a long range goal of forming a landscaping company to provide jobs for the homeless, former addicts and felons, "who have or are in the process of changing their lives," he said.

"My goal is to pull the community to gather to help with donations," he said.

He's working on a 501c3 (nonprofit) status but until that happens, he depends on friends to help.

Ben thanks God first for his life change, then Pat and Wyman, his fiancé Jennifer Coggins, DA Ted Bell and others.

Financing for the Easter baskets came from several other friends who support Ben's projects.

Ben, the founder of Books Up Guns Down, operates with this board of directors -- Shauntario Sain, president; Jennifer Coggins, Trevor Pitman, April Harwood, Doug Weisner and Cameron K. Marshall.

"It took him a long time to find the journey where he wanted to be," Pat Hardin said of Ben, who lives with her in Green Hill.

"When he was in solitary confinement other prisoners who were in for life told him they knew he had potential to be something, to do something."

When Ben is not at work with a sanitary plumbing construction contractor in South Carolina, he spends his days trying to find ways to help children and adults in Rutherford County and to secure donations for future projects.

To contact Ben or to make donations to Books Up Guns Down, email: Booksupgunsdown7414@gmail.com or visit his Facebook page.

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