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Meet Ernest Lockett: Ohio Regional Director of Independent Living


Written by: Alan Koenig


Ernest Lockett, by his account, arrived in Cincinnati roughly 30 years ago on a greyhound bus from Cleveland with three things. He had two red footlockers with all his earthly possessions, and a briefcase. In that briefcase were a couple of notebooks for school, a sock filled with spare change and miscellaneous bingo chips. You see, Ernest always has been a bit of a gambler. Before he bought that bus ticket from Cleveland to Cincinnati, and took that leap of faith, Ernest had grown up as a poker enthusiast due in no small part to his father's monthly game. Starting when he was five, Ernest would fetch a few beers for his dad and his friends, and in exchange they would let him sit at the table and learn different games. I think it's fair to say that Ernest fell in love with poker at a young age. This particular story would appeal to Ernest, not because it's about him, but because it's about gambling. It's about how Ernest bet on himself and won.

When Ernest showed up in Cincinnati he was in for a rude awakening. The buses in The Queen City didn't run all night like they did in Cleveland. Without even untying that old sock Ernest knew he wouldn't be able to come up with cab fare. If only those old bingo markers had some cash value. He was in for a long walk, and lugging those footlockers and his briefcase from the greyhound bus station to the University of Cincinnati's (UC) main campus would prove to be quite the task. Luckily for Ernest, he is nothing if not an intelligent savage. He seeks solutions for every barrier, and if he can't find a way, he makes his own.

It was late already, and Ernest’s trek took him through the “old” Over-the-Rhine district which, back then, was one of the worst neighborhoods in the state. The light of the moon and the kindness of the homeless were the only things helping guide him towards UC. His walk was a long two miles due to the incline of Vine street, and the weight he was dragging behind him. More than once Ernest thought about stashing one of his footlockers somewhere to return for the next day, but he knew the odds of it being there when he came back were slim. He trudged on. When he finally reached UC it was so late that there was nobody to help him find his dorm room. So, he sat in the lobby with his belongings for hours and reflected on his past that got him to this moment and focused on his future that lay before him.

During the summer of ’89 in Cleveland Ernest knew he couldn’t afford to return to Clark Atlanta University, but he could still afford to go to school outside his hometown if he worked hard enough and saved money. That’s what drove him to save for his tuition, room and board. Now that he was finally in his dorm building, he looked toward the future, he was determined to succeed on his own without any help from his parents. He wanted to prove to them, and to himself, that he could make it on his own. Ernest was just 19 years old, in a new city, and had no family, friends or resources to help him, but that determination he showed up with, never wavered.

Through his humble beginnings in Cincinnati, Ernest remembers what it felt like to have virtually nothing. The things that other students took for granted, he simply went without. Home cooked meals, transportation, shopping, cable, fast food, etc. all those things were luxuries he just couldn’t afford. His room and board were already paid for, so that’s all he needed to survive. He looks at the young adults in Necco’s Independent Living program and sees a lot of his younger self in them, just looking to survive. This is what inspires his biggest goal, to show the children that just a little further beyond surviving, is thriving. 

Ernest’s professional career began at a halfway house. He spent seven years assisting those recently released from incarceration. He moved up from a residential manager to a residential manager supervisor and finally a case manager before he was forced to make a tough decision. Ernest felt stuck financially. He was nearly in his thirties and he was still living in his first apartment he moved into after college, and he was still driving the same car too. He felt that he deserved more for his hard work and he couldn’t waste any more time waiting for a better opportunity, so he made his own luck and started an investment company with his college roommate. He resigned his position at the halfway house in 2000 and for the next five years Ernest was a day trader, buying and selling stocks full-time. The business was successful, and the money was everything he had hoped for, but sitting alone in a home office left his spirit unfulfilled. Ernest decided he cared more about helping others than helping line his own pockets.

In his time at the halfway house Ernest learned a lot. One of the lessons he never forgot was that an overwhelming number of men started making bad decisions when they were young. That is what brought Ernest to Necco. He decided he wanted to help young people before they ended up in that halfway house. If he could make a difference in their lives as children and young adults, his old colleagues at the halfway house wouldn’t have to help them later in life.

Ernest has been with Necco for fifteen years now. He began as a Case Manager in Foster Care before transitioning to an Independent Living Case Manager. From there he became a Team Leader, an Independent Living Program Director and is now the Ohio Regional Director of Independent Living. In his new role in the Independent Living Program Ernest is looking forward to digging into the data and surveys. He wants to figure out what’s working and what can still be improved upon. Then, deliver on those findings consistently and effectively.

Not too shabby for a man who couldn’t afford a cab 30 years ago.  

Fast Facts:

Age: 49

Hometown: Cleveland

Necco Awards: Team of the Year (2006), Teacher/Counselor (2007) (2009), Cognitive Competence (2010) Competence Makes a Difference (2018), Team of the Year (2018) 3 Core Behaviors (2019) 

College: Clark Atlanta University & University of Cincinnati

Degree: Criminal Justice

Hobbies: Chess, Cigars, Jazz, Hip-Hop, Poker