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David Cook

To Help the Sisemores:

Mail donations to Mustard Tree Ministries, PO Box 4002, Chattanooga, TN 37405.

In 2011, Destin Sisemore, the smartest kid in high school, was walking across the Lake-view-Fort Oglethorpe graduation stage with valedictory honors and five offers from Ivy League universities.

But his dad was nowhere to be found.

Robbie Sisemore was stoned, strung out, guttered-up, many miles away.

"In a bad place," he said.

For too long, Sisemore had been traveling through the barrooms of life. It started at Fort Campbell, Ky., when Sisemore, 39, was part of the 101st Rapid Deployment unit in the U.S. Army.

He needed a little pick-me-up.

"Here," a guy said. "Do this."

It was cocaine.

Over the years, his habit ate up all his money. So Robbie turned to another drug -- cheaper and easier to find.

"Meth," said Robbie.

It has cost him so much. Family. Friends. Jobs. His freedom. And his son's heart.

"He graduated from high school, with honors, as valedictorian, and I totally missed it," said Robbie.

In one week, Destin graduates again. This time, from college.

And Robbie has promised he'll be there. To stand up and cheer as his son walks the stage. To meet his professors and friends. To make up for all that's gone wrong.

"I cannot miss Destin's graduation," he said. "This is my last chance."

***

While Robbie became an addict, Destin became a scholar.

One of LFO's brightest students ever, Destin spent hours and hours at school. The academic decathalon. Nine advance placement courses. Macroeconomics. Calculus. Anatomy. Adults would turn to him for help with computers. Principals gushed. People called him a genuis.

"He's one of the most well-rounded guys you'll ever meet," a principal said in 2011.

To tell Destin's story is to also speak about the courage and dedication of his mom -- a single mom, remember -- and all she did.

"I wouldn't have made it without my mom," said Destin. "The reason I am where I am is because of her."

At his graduation, Destin gave the valediction speech. His mom was there, and extended family. But not Robbie.

"I told him a year or so before that it meant a lot for him to be there," Destin said.

Then came years and years of pain when he wasn't.

***

When Robbie, a Gordon Lee High graduate, joined the Army in 1998, he was a dedicated soldier.

"Gung-ho," he said.

But he paid a price. He'd be gone for weeks at a time. Returning home, it felt like he was a stranger to young Destin. Soon there was a divorce.

"From the time Destin was born, I wanted so bad to be a father and do the right thing. I thought the military was the best way for me to take care of that," he said. "But I screwed everything up."

In 2001, Robbie left active duty but stayed in Kentucky to party. He made his way to Colorado. Then to prison, for meth possession.

It was 2009. Destin was a junior at LFO. In prison, Robbie had become sober and clean.

But then, on the day of his release?

"The state of Colorado gives you a bus ticket and $100," he said. "Guess what I did? I went and bought a pack of cigarettes and then went and got high."

He made his way back to North Georgia, trying to establish some relationship with Destin. They'd hang out, talk. Destin told Robbie how much he wanted him to come to graduation.

But Robbie was still an addict.

On graduation day, he was gone.

"It was really hard," said Destin.

Soon Robbie met a woman named Tasha. They became homeless together. Robbie, once 250 pounds, was down to 170.

"We looked like death," Tasha said.

Then, on Feb. 12, 2014, Tasha's brother died of an overdose.

When Tasha got the news, she and Robbie fell to the ground, crying out for help. They knew if they didn't change, they'd soon die, too.

It was rock bottom.

"We both hit our knees," said Tasha. "And asked God to help us."

It became their own spiritual graduation day. Since that night, their entire lives have changed.

They're sober.

They're healthy and happy.

Robbie's working a full-time job, soon to be a team leader. Tasha, too, has a full-time job.

They have a three-bedroom house and a minivan.

And a genuine, transforming faith.

"It is a real change," said the Rev. Barry Kidwell. "It's like the prodigal son story."

While they were homeless, Robbie and Tasha met Kidwell, whose Mustard Tree Ministries helps folks on the street. He has witnessed their transformation. Now, they're regular churchgoers and taking lay ministry classes, hoping to help Kidwell minister to people on the streets.

"Folks know their background, and now they can see the difference," said Kidwell.

Slowly, delicately, Robbie began to reconcile with his son. When Destin was home on break, Robbie would take him to dinner at Amigo's. Or Chef Lin's.

I love you, he'd say.

"And a lot of begging for forgiveness," said Robbie. "And promising he'll see differences and changes."

When Tasha and Robbie got married this past winter, they asked Destin to be the best man.

"He has shown me in very concrete ways, despite not being here in the past, he's interested in being here for the present and future," said Destin. "And that gives me hope."

On Sunday, May 24, Destin graduates from Brown University in Rhode Island with a degree in American Studies and a job offer in Manhattan.

Robbie promised Destin he'd be there.

"Hearing him say that? It's really important," said Destin.

Robbie and Tasha are saving every dollar they can. It's a long way to Brown, especially in a minivan that gets 17 miles per gallon, on paychecks that pay $10 an hour. Kidwell has bought them a hotel room. They're doing the cruel math of the working poor: how do we make it work?

"This is it," said Robbie, tears in his eyes.

This time, both father and son will graduate.

Destin, into a bright future.

Robbie, out of his dark past.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

 

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