Drug Court graduate Trien Nguyen (center) is surrounded by supporters. His brother, Tien Nguyen (from left), Judge Albert Collier, Sherri Branch, Khalind Branch, Trien Nguyen’s wife, Kristal Nguyen, and Ronald Branch are all smiles.
Trien Nguyen's life began like many other Atlantans’ –– born in 1985, at Grady Hospital, the youngest of five kids, living in DeKalb County.
His family moved to Forest Park when he was in elementary school. His life of crime and substance abuse began immediately.
"I stole Camel cigarettes from the convenience store and hid in the bushes, and smoked till I threw up, and got a headache," he recalled.
Nguyen detailed his life in his speech during graduation from Clayton County Drug Court. It is a litany of upheavals, changes in schools, arrests, and drug use, that started with marijuana, and escalated to cocaine, at 17.
"I remembering trying it and being high and calling a taxi," he said. "But I didn't have any money for fare, and tried to run away. I ended up in jail again."
When Nguyen was released, he said he continued to get into trouble.
"I'd go with my friends, get high, and watch movies at AMC," he said. "I was arrested for [being a] public drunk and was in jail again."
At 19, he was arrested for possession of marijuana and spent six months in jail. After that charge, he was arrested for possession of cocaine, and sentenced to three years in prison.
"After I was paroled, I stayed high like there was no chance I'd get into trouble," said Nguyen. "I thought I could beat the system. I knew coke only stayed in my system for three to seven days, but I violated again."
When Nguyen faced 10 years in prison, he realized he'd reached a crossroads.
"I prayed for another chance to make better choices," he said.
Enter the Drug Court.
"It has made a remarkable difference in my life," said Nguyen. "I made up my mind then to live my life without drugs. I didn't realize my life was so messed up. Everything I learned in Drug Court, I took a lesson learned for myself. Having a job and a steady income are the keys to my success."
Nguyen's graduation ceremony is the second for the Clayton County program. Superior Court Judge Albert Collier oversees it. "You've had very few hiccups," he told Nguyen. "You've done well and we're proud of you. I hope you will turn your life around and be productive. This is quite an accomplishment, and we're very proud of you."
Nguyen's wife, Kristal; brother, Tien Nguyen, and mentors, Ronald and Sherri Branch, attended the ceremony inside Collier's courtroom. Sherri Branch said she is proud of his success. "We've been with him since he was a teenager," she said. "To see the progress is awesome."
Superior Court Judge Matthew Simmons was the keynote speaker for the ceremony. He gave Nguyen and the other probationers in the program some life-lessons.
"We all make mistakes," he said. "Stop beating yourself up. Don't let the naysayers get you down. I call them 'poison people' who enjoy telling you what you can't do."
Simmons shared the story of a boy on a sports team who had ups and downs during his games, much like most athletes. The boy's grandfather only commented on the mistakes the child made during the game, and never praised his successes.
"I would venture to guess most of that child's life was like that, somebody always beating him down and being negative," he said. "That child is now grown and in the Clayton County Jail."
Simmons also told the group about an undergraduate who took the GRE test to get into graduate school. The student tested poorly in all areas. "It would have been easy for him to give up, to admit he was not grad school material, but he didn't give up," he said. "He went on to be a good communicator, probably the best in the country –– Martin Luther King, Jr. Don't let the naysayers get you down."
Finally, he shared the lesson garnered from his favorite movie, "Saving Private Ryan."
"Earn this," he said. Pointing to Collier, Simmons added, "Without this man here, you all would probably be sitting in a jail cell or prison. Be a good man, lead a good life, and pay it forward. You've pulled yourself out of a dark hole, and they'll listen to you because you've been there."
Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson didn't address the group, but attended the ceremony. She said there is a strong need for the Drug Court.
"If we don't address the underlying addiction issue in drug users, all we are, are revolving doors for their incarceration," she said.
To get to graduation, Nguyen completed a grueling rehabilitation plan. The program requires months of group treatment, regular and random visits by an officer, a 9 p.m., curfew, random drug tests, 336 hours of community service, multi-weekly support meetings, holding a regular job and maintaining housing.
"He's been quite busy," said Collier. "He's accomplished a lot."