by: SUBMITTED - Bret Martin of Prior to AA leads a class of young people in Clackamas County.The Dec. 14 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., provoked a nationwide discussion about guns. But one Clackamas County man has decided to try to do something about what he sees as the bigger problem: a neglected generation of young people between 18 and 25.

Bret Martin, a Milwaukie resident and 1980 graduate of Rex Putnam High School, has founded Open Heart Prior to Alcoholics Anonymous, with the goal of providing a meeting place where young adults can be part of a community of their peers.

“It is a nonprofit, AA-type open forum, where individuals can get their needs met among their peers. They can work out issues in their lives or compare themselves to others who are working out life’s issues,” Martin said.

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Bret Martin, right, founder of Prior to AA, and his son, Grant, 19, enjoy some time together in New York City at Christmas time.The important thing, he added, is to get these young people to talk about their thoughts and feelings in a place where they feel safe. Martin held his first meeting on Jan. 5 at the Milwaukie Center, and about 30 young people attended and voiced their opinions on a variety of subjects.

He hopes to hold a meeting there every Saturday at 8 p.m., and expects to see more and more young people showing up.

“Prior to the shootings of Dec. 14, I had seven financial companies with 750 employees all over the nation. After I heard about the shootings, I sent them all an email and told them I was retiring,” Martin said.

He spent three days doing intensive research on mass shootings and realized that all the major events — from Sandy Hook Elementary School to Clackamas Town Center to Columbine High School — involved young men from 18 to 25.

“Is it a coincidence these massacres have happened? Not at all. There are people who talk about better gun control, but we have got to do a better job of raising these kids; this is right at the heart of it. That is why I quit what I was doing, and this is what I’m going to do,” Martin said, explaining why he chose to start Prior to AA.

Why is this organization needed now?

“The problem is we are in the middle of a ‘perfect storm’ from an economic standpoint,” Martin said.

Mentors can’t mentor anymore, because they have had to go back to work, he said. And many of these older people are competing for the same jobs that 19-year-old kids used to get, he added.

Divorce rates are high, so many of these young people don’t have the parental support and guidance they need. They have graduated from high school, but can’t afford college and most don’t have career jobs. In short, these young people lack community, and that is precisely what Martin wants to give them.

“They are the neglected generation; they need to hear some hope versus despair,” he said.

Martin feels a connection to this generation, he said, because of his closeness to his own children, ages 19 to 21, and their friends.

Days before he held the first meeting of Prior to AA, Martin told his 19-year-old son that he was going to try an experiment, and asked his son to text and Facebook his friends about the meeting on Jan. 5. His son’s friends showed up, and brought their friends.

“At the end of the meeting, I asked them to please come back one more time, and bring a friend. I heard they are coming and bringing three to five friends — it’s working,” Martin said.

Solid foundation

For now, Martin is taking the helm at the meetings, in order to explain what Prior to AA is all about. He stresses that the format is an open forum, so any topic of discussion is fair game, including thoughts about suicide, alcoholism and drug addiction, among others.

“It is about the need to share and the sharing needs to be public. They all have thoughts, and they can start to notice that their thoughts are not unique. It is OK to bring anything up in an open forum,” Martin said.

He feels he has a good solid foundation to start with, but he is looking for other adults to join in as board members. He would especially like to see support from the business community and from mental health care professionals.

Sometimes, young people are told they have to wait months to get an appointment with a mental health specialist, and Martin would like to see a program started where they could get help immediately.

He wants people to know that his organization is only one of the resources available to young adults, but those resources are diminishing rapidly, he noted, pointing to the controversies surrounding the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts.

“Where do you take your child these days? There are fewer communities available to them,” Martin said.

Alive again

Martin wants to encourage an awareness of the issues these young adults are facing, but first, older adults need to stop being too busy focusing on themselves, noting their own problems.

“Our own problems cause us not to see their problems, and if we’re going to get to the helm of these issues, it has got to be through these kids. These kids will be taking care of us in a few years,” he said.

He would love to see Prior to AA grow and spread across the nation.

The actor Carroll O’Connor had a one-minute TV spot years ago: “Get between your kid and drugs, any way you can.”

Martin wants parents to get between their kids and a whole host of issues, including suicide, alcoholism, drug addiction and homicide.

He has been a successful businessman, several times over, but now Martin plans to devote his life to Prior to AA.

“I’ve been chasing money all my life, but now I am done. I called my mom, and said, ‘Mom, I’m 51, and I feel like I’m alive again,’” he said.

“I don’t want a dollar out of this, but I want to fix this situation. I’ll never know how many lives I’ve saved.”

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