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GED honor grad leaves crime, drugs behind, turns life around
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Lanier Tech GED instructor Burch Roberts helps graduate Brandon Martin with the gold cord that denotes him as an honor graduate before Friday’s GED graduation ceremony at Free Chapel Worship Center. About 400 certificates were awarded to students from Hall, Banks, Barrow, Dawson, Forsyth, Jackson and Lumpkin counties. The commencement address was given by U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal. - photo by Tom Reed

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Hear Vivienne Speer, executive director of Bill’s Place, describe the goal of the nonprofit drug rehabilitation center.

Most days around lunchtime, Brandon Martin flashes a winning smile to customers from behind a counter of deli meats, cheeses and veggies.

The Gainesville Subway employee gladly stacks sandwiches high with customers’ favorite toppings, asking, "Would you like that toasted?"

Hungry patrons would never guess Martin was in prison a year ago serving eight months stemming from a felony methamphetamine possession and two counts of unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.

Nor would they guess he had turned himself in to Georgia authorities last April after fleeing a Minnesota work house and violating his probation.

But the 29-year-old father of three said it was his addiction to
methamphetamines, LSD, cocaine and alcohol that fueled his rap sheet. And instead of wallowing in a meth addiction where he glorified money and getting high, Martin made a move to end the party.

He said he was motivated by a desire to establish a relationship with his two daughters he loved and the son he had never met.

Martin turned himself in to Georgia authorities, thinking he could at least get clean in jail.

Two and a half years after first donning a prisoner’s uniform, Martin now is employed full time. And on Friday, he celebrated his graduation from Lanier Technical College’s GED program, where he was honored as the program’s honor graduate during the ceremony at Free Chapel Worship Center.

He now has his sights set on college and is working to pay more than $60,000 in back child support.

The new Roman Catholic convert said a local nonprofit agency was critical in stopping his cycle of drug abuse and incarceration.

While serving eight months in prison, Martin applied to Bill’s Place, a one-year drug rehabilitation program for ex-offenders. He filled out an extensive application and was accepted into the men’s program in Gainesville.

With only his jail-issued khaki pants and white shirt and $25, Martin was picked up at a Gainesville bus stop by Vivienne Speer, executive director of Bill’s Place.

While out on the first few days of parole, Martin was accompanied by Speer as he checked in with his parole officer, obtained a driver’s license — something he hadn’t held in five years — and enrolled in Lanier Tech’s GED program.

"This is the way I need to be and I should have been a long time ago," he said. "... It’s very easy for a person like me to get out and go back to what I was doing. Spiritually, it’s been so much better for me. It’s what I wanted."

Martin, who comes from a family of drug users, grew up in a bar his stepfather owned in Minnesota. In Florida, he lived with his uncle, who taught him how to cook meth. Six months of shooting up meth was enough for him to realize the money and the high wasn’t what he was seeking, Martin said. After living life on the lam in Florida, he decided he needed help.

"I was done living that way. I was sick of the people," he said.

Martin said Speer, who he calls his "guardian angel and the mother he never had," helped him to get his life back on track. Martin has been clean ever since he moved in to Bill’s Place, and even quit smoking cigarettes.

"There’s just no way I can repay Ms. Vivienne and God for what they’ve done for me," Martin said.

At Bill’s Place, Martin met his new "brother," 20-year-old Dustin Bland, who also is an ex-offender recovering from drug addiction.

Bland said his mother and lawyer helped him to apply at Bill’s Place.

"I told my lawyer, ‘I’ve got a drug problem. I need some help. Sending me to prison is going to do me no good,’" Bland said.

Speer said it’s men like Martin and Bland who want to recover from addiction whom she was aiming to help when she established Bill’s Place.

Following the death of her brother, Bill, who died from a heroin overdose in 1991, Speer began to form the nonprofit to help men successfully transition from prison to a drug-free life in the working world.

"At the time, I couldn’t make a difference for him. But I can make a difference for these guys now," she said.

With 30 years sobriety under her own belt, Speer said she feels her military background lends itself to establishing positive relationships with men who need structure and guidance from someone who cares.

Staying clean is at the top of her list of requirements at Bill’s Place. Right behind that is for ex-offenders to earn at least a GED and get a job to help cover living expenses, establish independence and build self-confidence.

"It’s so critical, because we’re finding as much as 30 percent of people in the state of Georgia do not have a high school diploma or a GED," she said. "... The important thing is to keep them on an even keel where they’re doing something productive and feeling good about themselves. What happens is, is that in the process of this, they don’t even think about using drugs."

Speer helps ex-offenders by taking them to buy new clothes for job interviews. She also makes sure they eat nutritious meals, often made from vegetables grown at the seven-man home’s organic garden. Daily AA meetings are mandatory.

Keeping ex-offenders clean goes a long way in keeping them out of prison, she said. Speer said close to 70 percent of offenders return to prison at least once if their initial crimes were related to drug and alcohol abuse.

And Speer works with employers to place ex-offenders in jobs. She said with a felony on their record, it’s often difficult for offenders to find steady work coming out of prison.

She said Martin is an example of what a convicted felon can accomplish when given an opportunity to do the right thing.

"We can’t keep locking people up. You lock them up and then provide them no options when they get out," Speer said. "... What I hope to accomplish is to change the mantra, ‘Once an offender, always an offender.’ ...

"These fellas deserve a second chance. Let’s open up our doors to them, and our hearts."

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