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The Baltimore Sun

Making an impact

When a judge slammed his gavel and took away Danny Brannon's freedom five years ago, the newly convicted robber and longtime addict was frantic. With no access to drugs or alcohol to feed his addictions and no way to scam people out of money, how would he survive jail?

At age 43, he'd been sentenced to five years at the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown. He resigned himself to his fate, but he asked his oldest sister to bring him his bass guitar to help fill empty hours.

That small request set in motion a series of events that inspired Brannon to overhaul his life of crime and substance abuse.

On Monday, Nov. 7, he expects to realize a dream when he opens the doors to the Impact Society, a new music and arts program for teenagers, at Calvary Community Church, on Rumsey Road in Columbia.

"I get really emotional about this," Brannon in a recent interview, tears sliding down his cheeks. "To think that just 10 years ago I was stealing $10 for a hit of crack."

Going to prison in 2006 saved his life, he said, by forcing him to quit drugs cold turkey and reassess his life. He has been clean and sober for five years now, he said, with the help of a 12-step recovery program.

Jail also became the nexus for a string of coincidences and opportunities that seem too incredible to be true — having a musician cellmate who shared his knowledge of music, forming a blues band with men he met in recovery, and joining a church that granted him free use of its auditorium and premium sound and video recording equipment.

"Everywhere I've turned, there's been another opportunity waiting," said Brannon, who works as a court liaison and client advocate for a Baltimore County treatment center, a job offered to him by the center's owner, impressed by Brannon's determination to remake his life. "I think they were always there; I just had to open myself up to them."

Brannon said his concept for a teen program "had been percolating in my mind for two or three years," ever since his passion for playing bass was further ignited by the cellmate who taught him music theory and shaped him into a bona fide musician.

After organizing and performing in benefit concerts at Calvary with his band mates, Brannon revived his idea of starting a safe, after-school program for at-risk teens who would be enticed by the universal appeal of music and the arts.

When Calvary leaders pointed out that the church's 20,000 square feet of classroom space and sophisticated audio-visual equipment were sitting unused six days a week and made them available to him at no cost, things started to quickly coalesce.

He'd begun using drugs and alcohol at age 10, Brannon said, and was already acquainted with the therapeutic value of music and creativity. He figured he could draw on personal experience "to do something to keep people from going down the road I went down."

Grand opening party

The Impact Society will operate weekdays from 3 to 7 p.m. — considered the most perilous hours for teens who come home to an empty house, he said — as well as Saturday mornings from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

By compiling information from the websites of the county's public schools, Brannon estimates that 12,000 kids aged 13 to 18 live within six square miles of Calvary Community Church and he hopes to attract 150 members of that target population per day. He is currently choosing a private contractor that will be available to transport students from area schools to the church, though parents will have to make their own arrangements to avoid liability issues.

The community got a taste of what Brannon's staff has to offer at a performance-studded grand opening Oct. 26 that drew about 75 people. Hortense Britt and her son, Randall, an eighth-grader at Mayfield Woods Middle School, in Ellicott City, were enticed to check out the program by a postcard they received in the mail.

"Randall likes behind-the-scenes work, but he also plays clarinet and sings," said the retired nurse. "I want him to get exposure to all of this to see what appeals to him."

Vince Anderson, who publishes a music magazine in Baltimore called "Shockwave," said he came to the event because his staff has been considering starting a similar program in the city.

"I like what this is all about and we're hoping we can open up a relationship with Danny" to discuss the program's structure and monitor its success, he said.

'They trusted in me'

Brannon began attending Calvary in 2009 at the urging of Pastor Mark Scott, a childhood friend who has since left the nondenominational church. Currently, Mike Rallo is serving as interim pastor.

"The people here are so wonderful and I've really connected with this congregation," Brannon said, brushing away yet another cascade of tears with the back of his hand. "They trusted in me after only a few months, when other people didn't."

Brannon's vision is shared by Calvary, even though the program has no religious component, said Jeff Herwig, a church officer.

"What makes Danny so remarkable is not just that he's beaten addiction, it's his desire to do something with his life," he said.

"He's an integral part of our church and this huge, new project is his idea and his dream," Herwig said. "We just happened to be a facility that's music-driven and has a sound system to die for. We also have members who are industry professionals, like our sound mixer who works with such artists as Sting and Paul McCartney."

Herwig believes the mission of the Impact Society will also resonate with other county residents and attract people to underwrite the program so that fees can operate on a sliding scale. "Even if it never generates a dime, it's not about the money anyway," he said.

Herwig said he's excited by the program's potential to make a difference in the community.

"Danny is so convinced that if we can protect even a few kids from making bad choices then it will all be worth it," he said.

Brannon was able to speed up the timetable on his dream project after learning in July that he'd won $10,000 as one of 20 students chosen as Pearson National Fellows. The nationwide competition is administered by the National Society of Collegiate Scholars for the Pearson Foundation, and recognizes students who are focusing on public service while continuing their education.

After graduating with honors from Anne Arundel Community College in May with an associate degree in addictions counseling, the Annapolis resident said the award was "the icing on the cake." He's already used half of it to pay attorneys to set up his new nonprofit, and will put the other half toward tuition at the University of Baltimore.

'Doing the right thing'

While Brannon still pinches himself over his good fortune and marvels over the number of people who've helped him along the way, he says he's worked hard and deserves to be where he is. Still, it's overwhelming to be singled out, he said.

"It's nice to be getting pats on the back for doing the right thing, instead of for not doing the wrong thing," he said. "People used to say to me, 'Oh, good, you're not doing drugs and stealing.' Now, they say, 'Wow, you're really making something of your life.' "

Charlie Powell, who employs Brannon at Right Turn of Maryland, said he sought out his former client in 2009 when he heard he'd been released from prison and had logged three years of continuous sobriety.

"Here was a guy who was here four or five times before he finally sobered up," said Powell of Brannon's stays at his Owings Mills treatment center. Now Brannon is working with the judges he used to appear in front of and is a natural, Powell said.

"He's been through the pain and the shame of it, and understands that it's a strange disease that takes different turns with different people," he said. "And he hung in there and the miracle finally happened for him. He's a good man."

Kids who attend the Impact Society "are absolutely going to love it," Brannon said.

They'll be able to select learning tracks from among the categories of music, art, film and dance, he explained, and will have industry professionals as their teachers. Quarterly performances and exhibits of the students' visual creations will be part of the mix.

When Brannon looks back on his childhood in south Baltimore in the early 1970s his memories are dominated by an alcoholic father and by his own flimflam schemes and destructive behaviors. He became estranged from his parents and four siblings at a very young age; he even claims to have burned down his family home when he was 10, though no one was inside.

"You can only break people's hearts for so long," he said, of his decision to remove himself from family life — not vice versa, as one might expect. He contacted his mother and four siblings decades later from jail, though his dad had died in 1998 without their ever reconciling.

"I want to make a living amends to him by doing the right thing for the right reason and helping people benefit from my past experiences," Brannon said. "At the height of my addiction I thought I was so powerful and that the guy with the most toys wins.

"But life's lessons really started to hit home," he said. "I've finally learned to give back, and I've never been happier."

More information is available at TheImpactSociety.org or by calling 443-949-0520.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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