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Former fugitive credits social worker for steering him toward a restored life

By Nicole Saidi and Christina Zdanowicz, CNN
  • A former fugitive credits his lifelong social worker for helping him turn his life around
  • The social worker stuck by him while he was on the run
  • Stouffer has turned to volunteerism and mentoring troubled teens
  • Have you been the recipient of a good deed? Share your story

(CNN) -- He fled a "nightmare" childhood for the uncertainty of foster care, maneuvered through several years behind bars and a jail break that turned him into a fugitive, and steeped much of his free time in alcohol.

Mike Stouffer is now sober and involved in restorative justice programs that help teenage offenders. He has exchanged letters with President Obama and received a personal response.

Stories of charity and goodwill are commonplace during the holidays, but less often do you hear what it's like to receive those good deeds.

The Wausau, Wisconsin, resident credits his turnaround to his now-retired social worker of almost 40 years, Dale Herrick.

"I knew you could, Mike," Herrick said. "I was proud of the decisions he made. I guess he became more straightforward with me. He's still one of my 'kids.'"

Herrick said Stouffer was clearly a smart guy, and figured he just had to realize he didn't need to stay in survival mode. He compares the situation to playing a slot machine: Keep adding nickels and have faith.

Herrick says he doesn't care who inserts the coins, "as long as [Stouffer] hits the jackpot."

Stouffer is now a regular CNN iReport contributor who shares positive community stories. Under the screenname "WausauFamily," Mike and his wife have submitted more than 100 iReports, often on events in and around their city.

Volunteerism, social events and nature photography are some of their favorite subjects to report on. "I simply share life through my lens and thoughts," he says in his iReport profile.

See other examples of good deeds

He also wrote a letter to President Obama and received a personal reply that he later shared on iReport. Recently, he invited Don Ryder, recipient of the 2009 National Peace Award, over for dinner and then church. Ryder, also a Wausau resident, is an advocate for prisoner's rights who received the award for his role in bringing clean drinking water to the Masai people in Kenya.

In the spirit of giving back to the community Stouffer harmed in his formative years, he works with troubled 12- to 19-year-olds in restorative justice programs. He says he asks for the "worst" cases in so he can have maximum impact.

Stouffer encourages teen offenders to talk to their victims and speaks in schools. Herrick's work inspired this effort.

"Everybody else has given up on these kids. I want to be the one who says, 'I won't give up on you.'"

During his childhood, he says trouble at home led Stouffer to be a hell-raiser at school who ran away and got into fights. Herrick, then a rookie social worker, was assigned to help the troubled boy find foster homes. Stouffer was only 12 years old when the pair met, but he always appreciated Herrick's persistence in the face of Stouffer's "defensive wall."

"I remember, to this day, how much faith and trust I had in Dale," Stouffer said. "I didn't want to show him these things because I was used to disappointment and rejection. I played the tough kid role and acted like it didn't matter. It did, though."

I was proud of the decisions he made. ... He's still one of my 'kids.'
--Dale Herrick, social worker

Stouffer says he ran away at 14 in hopes of finding his mother. He hopped on a bus and wound up scared and lost in Chicago, Illinois. Herrick was the person he called for help.

Herrick calmed him down over the phone and drove to the next state to retrieve him. He asked the teen to trust him and talk about his feelings as they drove home.

"I think we've kind of become friends in many ways," Herrick said. "I'm kind of a parent to him, kind of a mentor to him."

Stouffer continued to make trouble and went to several juvenile detention institutions. A botched escape attempt got him solitary confinement until his release at age 18.

He was arrested for armed robbery while concealed -- he was wearing a ski mask -- in 1979 at age 19.

While being held in county jail in Wisconsin, he and other inmates staged an escape by gradually chipping at the wall. The orange-jumpsuited Stouffer became a fugitive. TV and radio announcements warned the public of an "armed and dangerous" escapee.

Stouffer frantically called Herrick a couple of nights later from Salt Lake City, Utah. The grapevine was buzzing about the break.

"Hey Mike, come on, let's do some thinking," the social worker recalls saying, adding that he was obligated to report their conversation to authorities. Stouffer got scared and hung up.

Herrick says he felt the best thing to do was keep his door open in case Stouffer needed him and just encourage him to keep thinking and making the right decisions. They didn't always agree, but Stouffer says he benefited from his social worker friend's nonjudgmental approach.

A couple more years passed. Stouffer met a woman and had a son with her, but soon found himself a single parent and fugitive all at once. He decided his wild lifestyle could be harmful, so he put his son in foster care and turned himself in.

He was placed in medium- and maximum-security facilities to serve his 10-year sentence. One was the Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage, Wisconsin, which has housed notorious inmates such as cannibalistic serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.

After being granted parole twice and having it revoked, he finally got out of jail in 1991. He was able to secure equipment to become a tattoo artist. He had learned about it underground in prison and figured it would be better for him than an office job. He pursued the field as his own family business and kept writing.

A major turning point in his life was when he met his wife, Bobbi, while making a bet at a pool hall.

He gave her his number and Bobbi called the next day. They've been together since. Mike Stouffer credits Bobbi, and his children, with encouraging him to stop drinking. He decided he wouldn't marry Bobbi until he was sober, and says he has been since May 2001.

Bobbi Stouffer says she was uneasy about dating her future husband, but his straightforwardness won her over. Mike Stouffer says he isn't sure what she saw in him. Bobbi says sticking with him was the best decision she ever made.

"He tends to see things way out of the box from other people. I don't know if that is because of how he grew up or the trials he went through, but he tends to see life through a different lens. The smallest things in life are really a joy and a gift."

Some of Stouffer's volunteer work rocketed him into his past when he went through one of his old cell blocks by chance. Time stood still after 20 years, and he recognized some of the faces.

This year, he took an inmate to community social club for Thanksgiving dinner.

Herrick says Mike Stouffer is doing important work with troubled youth who need to see other options in life. Herrick also applauds Stouffer for walking away from his old people and places.

"There's a saying: If you spend enough time in a barbershop, you will get a haircut," the social worker said.

Mike Stouffer says he can't thank Herrick enough for his willingness to keep putting nickels in the machine even when the jackpots weren't coming easy.

"Social workers, the next time you are questioning whether your work matters, believe that it does. [Herrick] never judged me or was mean. His voice was the only compassionate sound I heard during some of my darkest and confusing hours of my young life."