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Participants in a six-week court diversion program called the Dannon Project are graduated Friday with better life skills, including financial literacy, substance abuse education, and anger management training. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)

HOBSON CITY — When Jermelle “Jeh Jeh” Pruitt talked to graduates of the Dannon Project, a life skills program for young men and women, during a ceremony Friday, he compared obstacles to Darth Vader in a football helmet.

A Jacksonville State University football player in his youth, Pruitt made a 45-yard run on his first game play for the team. He got the idea that college football would be easy.

But the Gamecocks tried to run the play again, and that’s when a giant player — with a black visor that covered his eyes, and heavy, Vader-esque breathing that Pruitt remembers to this day — stepped into the hole Pruitt was supposed to dash through. The future Fox 6 anchorman learned a lesson about the dangers of hubris from “Darth Vader” on defense that day.

“The next thing I see is my feet coming back at me. This guy knocked me back 10 yards,” Pruitt said. “It was at that point I realized this was not going to be that easy.”

He told the 16 Dannon Project graduates the story in the gymnasium behind C.E. Hanna Elementary, during a ceremony to commemorate their passing the project’s six-week “Re-entry Demonstration Project,” a court diversion program for 18- to 24-year-olds. Program participants learn life skills such as financial literacy, avoiding substance abuse and anger management, and they receive training in a work field, like customer service or forklift driving.

Pruitt and his wife founded the Dannon Project in 1999, three years after his younger brother, Dannon, was accidentally shot and killed by a man who’d been recently released after serving time for a nonviolent drug charge. The Re-entry Demonstration Project was announced two years ago, built on the back of a $4.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, split between the Hobson City office and another Dannon Project location in Jefferson County.

Back at his first football game, Pruitt said, the rest of the contest was a wreck for him because he kept making mistakes. After the game, he vowed that the team would never have another bad play because of him. He stuck to that promise, he said, and during his career with JSU earned a touchdown record that was only recently broken.

“I was able to correct myself. That’s an opportunity you guys all have,” he told the graduates. “All of that work you did is just the beginning. Your work now is life.”

Graduates said they appreciated the time they spent in the program. Anthonio Hawkins said he got a forklift certification, and that he views the program as a second chance.

“At first, every one of us was on a path of destruction, and now all of us has a chance to do the right thing and start over again,” Hawkins said.

The program taught him about work skills and self-management, he said. He learned to save money, and the value of having and holding down a job.

Ashton Scott was another graduate who picked up a forklift certification. He said the Dannon Project has had a positive effect on his life.

“Growing up, I didn’t really have support and all that, but when I came here I felt love, I felt family,” Scott said. “Everything about me changed, period.

Assistant Metro Editor Ben Nunnally: 256-235-3560.