CONYERS — The Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office held the 80th graduation ceremony for inmates who have made it through the Rockdale Residential Substance Abuse Treatment program on Feb. 18. The current graduating class consists of Keli Sharp and Jennifer Smith.

The RRSAT program began in November 2014 with a grant from the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and has had more than 450 participants. Each class lasts 90 days and teaches inmates parenting skills, substance abuse education, anger management, job readiness, relapse prevention, and character development.

Sheriff Eric Levett thanked State Court Judge Nancy Bills and Superior Court Judge Robert Mumford for their support of the program. He told Sharp, Smith, and four other female inmates currently enrolled in the program that law enforcement officers are there to help.

“We want to provide help to those who want to help themselves,” Levett said. “When you leave this jail, just know that you have some folks behind you that wear that badge and wear judges’ robes. We’re here, and we’re a resource that you can reach out to if you start to feel or relapse a little bit.”

Capt. Dennis Pass, who leads the program at the jail, told the graduates that time is a gift everyone has.

“You spent your time recovering,” he said. “Everybody makes mistakes, and the important thing is to learn from those mistakes. That gives us time to move forward in the right direction. How you invest your time will determine where you go. We’re here for you and want you on the outside of these walls doing what is good for you, good for your family and good for the community.”

Ryan Kilgore, a local saxophonist who has traveled the world playing with Stevie Wonder, performed at the graduation and told the graduates to remember the three P’s: Person, Passion, Purpose.

“Every person has a passion, every passion has a purpose, every purpose has a person,” he said.

Suzanne Kilgore (not related to Ryan) is a case worker for the Rockdale Accountability Court. She told her own story of dealing with drug addictions and recovery. Her drug abuse began in Hahira in the early 1980s and continued after she moved to Atlanta. In 2003 she was arrested on a fourth charge of manufacturing methamphetamine. Three years later, she entered a long-term treatment program and has been clean since 2008.

At 50 years old, she decided to go back to college. Four years later she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She continued her internship for another two years to gain her counseling certification in substance abuse. She got her first job as a substance abuse counselor in court services at Viewpoint Health in Conyers and said for the first time in her life she had a purpose.

“God’s plan for me was to use my story and my lived experiences as a vessel to help others who suffer from addiction who may choose recovery have a life that is second to none and gain successful careers, even as convicted felons,” Kilgore said.

Because of her recovery, in November 2017 the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole granted a full pardon and a full restoration of all of her rights, and today she works as the case manager for the Rockdale Accountability Court program.

After they received their diplomas, Sharp and Smith had a chance to speak about their experience in the RRSAT program.

“These past few months have been an amazing learning experience,” Sharp said tearfully, “and I have been encouraged to be a better version of myself so that one day I can say I have positively affected other people’s lives like each of you have affected mine.”

Smith said she entered the program broken, unsure, hopeless, and very much alone.

“Thankfully I had the advantage to immerse myself in the RRSAT program,” she said. “It has taught me to surrender my old habits and behaviors, forgiveness of myself and others, and knowing with a new and positive mindset, I can be useful, remade with a purpose.”

Capt. Jason Welch told the graduates there are two types of addiction they need to be aware of.

“It is not just the substance, but it is also the lifestyle,” he said. “An addiction to one will create the other one. If you are aware of both of these addictions, you can be more successful in your recovery.”

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Senior Reporter

Born and raised in Decatur, Ga. Graduated from Shorter College in Rome, Ga. in 1979 with B.A. in Communications. Worked in community newspapers for 26 years. Started at Rockdale Citizen/Newton Citizen in January 2016.

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