The word haven means a place of safety, a refuge.
And so it is with Batavia native Haven Armstrong. Despite his rocky childhood — dropping out of high school and a constant journey of getting into “a little bit of trouble” — Armstrong has since become a leader in the military, with his family, and for the community.
The 36-year-old Irondequoit resident has fulfilled the very reason his dad named him Haven.
“It means a safe place; he liked that word. My dad taught me how to carry yourself like a man,” Armstrong said during an interview Wednesday. “I just want to be as honest, as real, as open as I can be.”
A Rocky Beginning
It took him a while to reach this point. As a teen, Armstrong dropped out of school at 16. Admittedly, he was “running with the wrong crowd, skipping school” and believing he was a man before his time.
“Thinking I was grown up before I was grown up,” he said. “My mother didn’t let me get away with a lot. She guided me.”
His mom, Patricia Armstrong of Batavia, not only devoted her support to her eldest son and his siblings, but to Haven’s daughter. At the precarious age of 15, he became a father to Makayla. That was “a definite eye-opener,” he said and began his slow trek into adulthood. He eventually got his General Education Diploma (GED) and worked “every job” at various places, from gumball factories and roofing companies to fast-food restaurants.
He acknowledges now that he probably should have listened to his mom more than he did. When his second child, Hasan, was born in 2007, Armstrong genuinely tuned into reality, he said. At 23, he decided to enlist in the Army National Guard. He never looked back.
Falling in Line
“I saw the way my life was going,” he said. “I kind of just took right to it. It’s always something I wanted to do. I believe it was the structure I was yearning for. It was a personal journey that helped me as a father, helped me as a brother, helped me as a son.”
Geographically, he said, the role of infantryman has taken him to Germany, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Ireland, and just about every state in America. Once a kid on the street looking for trouble, Armstrong, a Staff Sergeant in line for a promotion to Sergeant First Class, has established a solid career. Much of his work has been to evaluate infantry units and train them for deployment. His team trained 50,000 troops across the country, he said. While overseas he helped to shut down highways and safeguard vehicles carrying ammunition.
“We made sure it was a safe route for the ammo to travel,” he said. “We were getting proficient and becoming experts in what we did. It taught me a lot.”
Two years ago he took another opportunity with National Guard to become a recruiter. Based in Geneseo, Armstrong visits schools throughout Genesee County and a portion of Wyoming County during the school year. Summertime means seeing prospective recruits at festivals and fairs. Although he misses the hands-on duties of his infantryman status, Armstrong enjoys sharing his own story with youths who may be experiencing a similar upbringing. The Army National Guard has given him a needed outlet, he said.
“I didn’t know how to channel that energy,” he said. “That’s why I got in trouble.”
Gaining a Voice
His story’s latest chapter is to become part of the Just Kings Social Club, a 10-member organization to help raise up the community. It began with Armstrong’s brother, Brandon, and a few of his friends who organized a march last year in memory of George Floyd and to raise awareness of “why people are upset,” Haven said. Unlike many other rallies that scored big publicity for wreaking havoc on the streets, this one was meant to be peaceful and powerful, Haven said. And he got caught up in the emotion of it all. During the march, he seized the opportunity to speak his truth.
“I grabbed the bullhorn and shared my story,” he said. “We wanted it to be as non-violent as possible.”
As part African American, he has experienced and observed racial profiling — getting pulled over and searched by law enforcement more often than other ethnicities — and watching as minorities received heavier penalties than white people for similar offenses, he said. His military service has brought enlightenment that it doesn’t have to be that way, he said.
“I’ve seen the most diversity … black leadership with white subordinates and white leadership with black subordinates. We don’t see color; everybody’s green. That was the real way of doing everything. When doing a job, we were all treated the same.”
Establishing a Foothold
He is careful to ensure his children, which also include Haven Jr., receive a well-rounded education and not just what is in traditional history books, he said. He wants to instill “a moral guideline” along with providing valid information about his family’s heritage.
“To give them everything I can give them in this crazy world we live in,” he said. “I don’t hide anything from them.”
He also brings that truth to Just Kings, a group of humble beginnings purposely devoid of a leader in lieu of a board of peers. Just is for justice and Kings is a term of endearment in the black community. Juneteenth celebrations, chicken barbecues, Thanksgiving food drives, and a school backpack program have served as fundraisers and philanthropy efforts to help bring about change and let people know that someone has their back, he said.
“We’re just trying to be that extra support for the community. People felt like they’re not represented,” he said. “We felt like we needed to put our foothold down in the community.”
The group’s mission statement is “to provide a voice for the local black community. We work to educate and mentor the youth, our neighbors, and ourselves as we continue to fight to end Racism (White Supremacy).”
Haven praised the generosity of local individuals and businesses and law enforcement. Just Kings has forged relationships with Batavia City Police Chief Shawn Heubusch and others in the criminal justice system. The outreach has been “overwhelming,” he said, and these efforts have given people a voice.
“We’ve been silent for so long,” he said.
For more information about Just Kings, how you can help, and future events, check out: https://www.facebook.com/Just-Kings-101243478338314/
Photos courtesy Haven Armstrong.