CONYERS, Ga. — Suzanne Kilgore sat behind her desk at Rockdale Accountability Court in Conyers, Georgia. I, Hope Ford, a reporter with 11Alive, set up my camera and started asking her questions.
A few questions in, I asked about her past struggles. Kilgore, who already admitted she was nervous, was having a hard time answering.
“Pretty much in the grips of, um, of addiction, when I, um,” she said, watching me as I adjusted the camera.
“Can we do this over?” she asked. “I just need to breathe.”
I said sure, turning off the camera and sitting down to talk to her. She was struggling to talk about her past, which includes two felony drug convictions. She was struggling not because she is ashamed of her past, but because she didn’t want her past to overshadow her message. Which is that, yes, she was a drug user and felon. But look where she is now.
And when she started talking about the now, she didn’t stop. She took off, not even noticing when I turned the camera back on.
“'Once an addict and always an addict' no longer holds true,” she said.
At 50 years old - 23 years after her first arrest - Kilgore would graduate college, earning a Bachelor of Arts from Argosy University. She would then receive her substance abuse counselor license.
It was time to start a new life, but there was a roadblock.
“We can’t hire you, you’re a convicted felon,” Kilgore said, describing the fear she had while applying for jobs.
Turns out that fear was unfounded. She started at ViewPoint Health in Conyers, working as a substance abuse counselor, thanks to a woman named Tamika Grimes.
“She believed it me,” Kilgore recalled.
After a few years, she would later move to Rockdale Accountability Court. Yes, you read that right - court. Kilgore would end up working for the same court system that once punished her for her crimes
“I don’t go before superior court judges in handcuffs anymore,” she said with a slight giggle. “I am so blessed to go in and hold my head high and work with them. To be on the other side of that is an absolute miracle.”
She enjoys connecting people with drug and alcohol convictions to programs that would help them reenter society - like getting housing, dental and vision care, job placement. But, at 57 years old, she still had her own two convictions hanging over her head.
So, she applied for a pardon. A year and a half later, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles would call.
“I had been forgiven of all my crimes,” Kilgore said.
Her rights restored. The 10 years she spent on probation wouldn’t be a topic, unless she brought it up. Which she does, when she goes before the pardon board every few weeks or months to tell her story.
And to reporters, like me, who want to know more.
“We were only hearing about the people who died from this disease. Nobody ever heard about the people that recovered,” Kilgore said.
People like her, who have husbands. Her is named Wes and he stood by her for 16 years. People who have daughters they can now around..
“My addiction robbed me of the opportunity to be the kind of mother I needed to be for her,” Kilgore admitted in a soft voice. “But, now I can be there for her at any time.”
The now 59-year-old admits, had her drug use continued, she might not be alive. And if she weren't alive, she wouldn’t have been present for the births of her grandchildren, who lovingly call her Meme.
“Meme would not be available for Peyton [her granddaughter] and that saddens me.”
It's cliché, I know, but Kilgore is proof, anyone, at any time, can do anything. And sometimes the best chapters of a story, come later in life.
“When people hear the term addict, they think a low-bottom junkie, a Skid Row alcoholic. They don’t hear anything past addict,” Kilgore said, leaning into the table. “There’s a lot past that word.”
"Don’t give up before the miracle happens," was and is her motto. Kilgore said faith played a role in her success and she admits she will be in “long-term recovery” for the rest of her life.
She says the important thing is: it might not be the first time or second time. She was clean for nine years - before her second felony conviction.
But, she got tired of “suffering the consequences of her actions” and works towards ensuring everyone knows the miracle is waiting.