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GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) — Boatswain Mate Craig Borden recently was commissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Navy, and he visited Gadsden last week to see the people he credits for his success: Educators in the school system that expelled him in the 1990s.
Borden was born in Colbert County, and he and his biological mother were in and out of homeless shelters through the years before they landed in Etowah County.
He was enrolled at Hokes Bluff and quickly felt like an outcast, he said.
"I had to overcome a lot of obstacles," Borden said. "You were judged on where you were from, what you wear, and I took it hard and it led to me acting out and that wasn't who I really was."
His actions led him to the Etowah County Alternative School, and that is where he says his road to success started.
"They were able to guide me on the right path," he said.
Borden said his counselor, Susan Hill, played an important role in helping him get where he needed to be. Cindy Kirkland, a social worker with Etowah County Schools, helped find him other services he needed.
It was there he also met Rhonda Martin, a longtime instructor at the school. She later became his legal guardian, and he now calls her mom.
Martin said the two connected from the beginning and still are close.
"Everybody we meet that doesn't know the story says he is the spitting image of me," she said.
Martin said when Borden first ended up at the alternative school, he was a slow learner, but she knows now that was just because of his environment.
"He just hadn't been exposed to a lot of things other kids were exposed to," she said. She remembers when other students teased him because he thought an IQ test was for his eyes.
Borden was making progress at the alternative school and Martin, Kirkland and Hill all knew he would eventually succeed. But before he could, he was expelled.
Martin lives on the lake in Leesburg, and he went to live with her. She had some connections in the education system in Cherokee County, and he was enrolled at Sand Rock High School.
Within a few months, he was attending school activities and went to homecoming with a date.
"I bought him his first suit," Martin said.
At Sand Rock, Borden excelled at football and track, and his grades continued to improve. He made all-state in football and track and was selected as his senior prom king.
It was at their home in Leesburg where Borden worked hard to improve his endurance for rescue swimming as he prepared to enlist in the Navy.
"One time he was learning to ski and pitched a fit, so I left him and he had to swim to shore," Martin said.
As he continued to train, she would drive the boat and he would swim alongside.
Martin said that tough love worked for Borden, but he also wanted to succeed. "He worked hard all through high school, and he wanted it," she said.
Martin said she got Borden a car, but he had to work to pay for the insurance. "Every time I got my tax returns, I'd get him a little better car," she said.
Borden enlisted in the Navy in 2003. After various training stations, he was selected for and completed Search and Rescue Swimmer School in Jacksonville, Florida, and became one of three swimmers attached to the USS Tortuga in Little Creek, Virginia.
In 2006, he was transferred to the Patrol Coastal Crew Bravo and was deployed in 2007 and advanced as a petty officer second class. He made several advancements and in 2011, he received orders to the USS Anchorage, which had a home port in San Diego. He was chosen as the Anchorage's first Sailor of the Year and advanced to petty officer first class.
He then was given a new set of orders to the USS Milius, where he assumed responsibilities of OD Division's leading petty officer.
Borden was selected in March 2015 for commissioning through the Limited Duty Officer Program. He is set to assume duties as the officer-in-charge of Assault Craft Unit Five Echo Crew in Camp Pendleton, California.
It is students like Borden that make educators proud, Kirkland said.
"When you're able to be involved in an intervention that changes someone's life so drastically, it makes you feel good," she said. "That makes you feel good."
Borden said he is thankful for those who helped him, and he doesn't believe he would be where he is without their help, especially Martin.
"She was a single lady who took me in, not knowing what was going to happen," he said. "She wasn't afraid of the unknown. If it wasn't for her, I don't know where I'd be today."
Information from: The Gadsden Times, http://www.gadsdentimes.com
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