As a preteen, Gage Bryant should have been spending time with kids his age; instead, he gravitated to a group much older than he was and fell in with a bad crowd.

“I should have stayed in a child’s place, but I didn’t; I tried to act older than I was,” 24-year-old Bryant said. “At 13, I got myself involved in a robbery that went bad. (My crew members) ended up taking two people’s lives — a man and a woman. It just so happened that the man was a retired veteran, in the Army. I hate for that loss.”

A decade later, Bryant, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison, is still paying for his crimes. But he now has something to be proud of: On Friday, 11 years to the day — the murders occurred on June 28, 2008 — he, alongside 13 other inmates, received welding certificates from Gwinnett Technical College. Bryant also received his GED, and was named class valedictorian.

“Throughout my time (in prison), I lost my mom and dad, and I thought all hope was gone,” he said. “But it’s not, it’s still here, and I want to show others that (rehabilitation) is possible. I come up for parole in February, so hopefully I’ll be able to get into a (transitional center) and show them what I can do with this certificate.”

Those certificates, which were presented to each of the 14 inmates in a graduation ceremony at the Gwinnett County Comprehensive Correctional Complex Friday morning, mark the successful completion of a 16-week welding program that is offered through a partnership between the Gwinnett Department of Corrections, the Georgia Department of Corrections, the Atlanta Regional Commission and Gwinnett Technical College.

Participants in the program attend class four days a week for six hours a day after completing their work detail, where they learn basic welding skills, safety and quality workmanship.

Upon successful completion, they earn certificates in Introduction to Welding, Oxy-Fuel Cutting, Gas Metal Arc Welding and Flux Cored Arc Welding from Gwinnett Tech — credentials that make the inmates very marketable to employers once they are released, said Gwinnett Department of Corrections Job Training Coordinator Shontese Renfroe-Wilson.

“In our last class, we had 13 graduates, and I am proud to say 11 of those 13 have been released back to the community,” Renfroe-Wilson said. “All 11 found gainful employment in welding, and the base salary started at the low end, which was $17 an hour. The high end was $23 an hour. The young man who got the job for $23 an hour had never been employed before. All he knew was what he did for a living, and his first employment is in a company down in Augusta making $23 an hour. I am so proud to say that’s what (this program) is all about.”

Gwinnett Tech President Glen Cannon said that, too, is what the school’s certifications are all about — offering students an opportunity at a career.

“You took advantage of an opportunity where we could give you a skill set,” Cannon told the inmates on Friday. “We are guarantors of opportunity — if I sum up what Gwinnett Tech is, (that is) what we are. What we’re not are guarantors of success. When you entered this program, you had opportunity; we could not guarantee you success, your instructors could not guarantee you (would complete) the program. But you did.”

“You never know what taking advantage of an opportunity can lead to, if you apply yourself,” Cannon continued. “The bottom line is, you’ve got to have that people want and need, and you have that now. You’ve got a skillset that makes companies want you.”

Bryant said that’s exactly what drove him to the program.

“I wanted to take the opportunity and I didn’t want to waste it,” he said. “I don’t believe in wasting my time; I believe in doing something beneficial so that when I get released, I won’t to resort back to the same thing I was doing. And I will (continue to) strive to do better.”