GREENEVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Three grateful Greene County Recovery Court graduates stepped into the sunlight Thursday at Hardin Park.
More than 70 fellow Recovery Court participants, friends, family and Recovery Court team members joined them to mark the occasion.
“You have so many in the community who are supporting you,” said Cindy Wilhoit, Recovery Court case manager.
Graduates Matt Cutshaw, Whitney Legg and Jerika Shelton stood and gave thanks to those who assisted them on what Wilhoit termed their ongoing “journey” of recovery.
Shelton said she wanted to get off drugs, but the “revolving door” incarceration process familiar to many struggling with addiction stood in her way until she made a commitment to change her life.
Shelton offered encouragement to fellow Recovery Court members.
“If I can do this, any of you all can. You can do it,” she said.
Legg brushed away tears as she accepted a completion certificate from Tyler Kelley, director of Recovery Court.
Legg said that 18 months ago, she was facing legal charges and had lost hope, but “with the help of God and my Recovery Court family,” she had a far different outlook Thursday.
“You guys are awesome. I’m so grateful,” Legg said.
Cutshaw thanked God and Recovery Court members after he was presented his graduation certificate from Kelley.
Cutshaw said he had long wanted to get off drugs. One night he said a prayer asking God “for whatever it takes” to get help. He was arrested the next day and began the transformation that led to Thursday’s graduation ceremony.
He had a message to all those in Recovery Court.
“God set you up to change your life,” Cutshaw said.
Recovery Court isn’t easy, but successfully completing the program has many rewards, he said.
Cutshaw offered this advice: “Find God, seek Him and show up, and I believe in my heart God will make things happen. I’m so grateful.”
Recovery Court currently has 34 members.
Kelley said a grant enabling the hiring of Wilhoit last November provided the staffing to expand the program’s scope.
“We’ve doubled the (enrollment) in the past year,” Kelley said. “We got some more funds for a case manager.”
Wilhoit said several new referrals a month are made to Recovery Court.
For some applicants with pending charges, Recovery Court provides an alternative to a jail sentence and offers an opportunity for participants to move their lives in a positive direction.
Each Greene County Recovery Court participant must complete a 28-day inpatient treatment stay before they begin the rigorous 60-week program.
“It’s a lot of hard work. It’s a lot of dedication. It’s a lot of time spent in Recovery Court,” Kelley said. “It’s no short feat. It’s very intensive.”
Wilhoit, a registered nurse and instructor who is retired from employment with the state, works with each Recovery Court member.
“It’s not an easy program. They have to devote 24 hours a day, seven days a week to getting sober and wanting to be a part of their children’s and their family’s lives to graduate from the program,” Collins said. “It’s an accomplishment and they should be proud of it.”
Jennifer Harris-Dugger, a Ballad Health certified peer recovery specialist who works in Tennessee and Virginia, was the guest speaker.
Harris-Dugger described the harrowing life of addiction she led before successfully completing the Recovery Court program in Bristol, Virginia.
Addiction “brought me to my knees,” said Harris-Dugger, a Johnson City native who works with inmates and others in Ballad Health’s Peer Recovery program.
Harris-Dugger told the graduates she understands the challenges and rewards of recovery.
Criminal charges, thefts to support her habit, divorce, having a child taken from her custody and moving to other states did not change Harris-Dugger’s lifestyle until she make a personal commitment.
“I could no longer function. I was a junkie,” she said. “I was completely out of control. I was going to do whatever it took to make it happen.”
Harris-Dugger now has her “dream job helping other addicts.”
“I got my son back and restored relationships with my family,” she said. “My work with the Peer Recovery program has taken my recovery to the next level.
“Watching that light come back into someone’s eyes is for me far more rewarding than the mighty dollar,” Harris-Dugger said.
“I’m here to congratulate the Recovery Court graduates,” she said. “This is not the end. It’s the beginning to the end.”
Wilhoit thanked all Recovery Court team members, including Katina Taylor, supervisor of the Correctional Counseling Institute probation team that supervises Recovery Court participants.
“We definitely appreciate all of the team members,” she said.
Wilhoit told Recovery Court participants she is proud of their efforts.
“I appreciate that you step out your comfort zone. This program is tough (and) I appreciate your inner strength. You could have taken the easy way out and flattened out your (jail) time, but you chose to make a commitment,” she said.
Wilhoit said the Recovery Court team will continue to help graduates be successful. She repeated a word of advice voiced by several other Recovery Court team members.
“Stay connected,” she said.
The Greene County Recovery Court program was founded in 2004 by then-General Sessions and Juvenile courts Judge Thomas Wright, who retired last year as a 3rd Judicial District Circuit Court judge.
At the time, the program was known as DUI Court. Its primary focus was alcohol addiction and the rehabilitation of repeat driving under the influence offenders.
Recovery Court his since evolved into a multidisciplinary team. Members address the needs of nonviolent offenders who have substance abuse or co-occurring mental health issues, or who are veterans.
General Sessions and Juvenile courts Judge Kenneth Bailey Jr. has presided over Recovery Court since 2006, the year the program expanded to encompass its current structure.
Those with drug addictions now make up the vast majority of Recovery Court participants.
Recovery Court team members are all volunteers.
Several Recovery Court team members spoke briefly at the ceremony, including John Toney, a Comprehensive Community Services alcohol/drug treatment counselor.
He urged the graduates to stay in touch.
“There’s something about supportive groups that create a sense of belonging. There’s something about the recovery community that helps,” Toney said. “Unfortunately, recovery is not a straight line, (so) stay connected.”
Cindy Tvardy, clinical site director of Frontier Health’s Nolichuckey Mental Health Center, noted Recovery Court has helped many people turn their lives around.
“I just want to say what a privilege it has been to watch the growth, the physical, mental and emotional growth, in all three of you,” Tvardy said. “Be well.”
Several Greene County businesses helped make the event a success.
Booronie’s Bar & Grill provided hamburgers and other food. Angeez Catering contributed a cake for the occasion, and the Creamy Cup provided ice cream for the guests.
Kelley and Wilhoit shared some recollections about each graduate. Laughs mingled with tears during the graduation ceremony.
“I’m super proud of you all. Recovery Court is really hard, and people don’t understand how hard it is. It should not be taken lightly,” Kelley said. “We’re always here for you.”