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Dawson drug court celebrates 10 years
A-Drug Court pic1
Natasha Colson receives her certificates of completion from Hall County Drug Court Friday afternoon from District Attornet Lee Darragh during graduation ceremonies at First Baptist Church. The ceremony also incuded graduates from Dawson County Treatment Court. - photo by Scott Rogers DCN Regional Staff

This year marks the 10th anniversary for Dawson County Treatment Court and the 15th anniversary for Hall County Drug Court, and treatment services for the two counties hosted a celebration and joint graduation last week.

The Nov. 18 ceremony was held at 1 p.m. at First Baptist Church in Gainesville.

Founding Judges John Girardeau and Jason Deal were in attendance to deliver special remarks.

In 2001, Girardeau said drug cases dominated his criminal calendar.

"After a while, I came to learn that even the cases that weren't drug cases - property crimes such as shoplifting, burglary, theft and even some violent offenses - often had addiction to drugs as a major cause," the judge said.

Some would be sent to prison, and others would spend time on probation. The same people would end up back before Girardeau.

"Neither prison nor probation was working," he said.

With his mother being a middle school teacher, Deal would eventually see several of her students appear in his courtroom.

"Those were a lot of our discussions when we'd get together for dinner, was who was in Drug Court that she taught in school," he said of his talks with Gov. Nathan Deal and First Lady Sandra Deal.

One of the graduates, Ray Schandera, 50, lives in Dawsonville and has struggled with drug addiction for 35 years. He said that without the program, he'd probably be dead.

"I had been in prison a couple of times over the years on drug charges and when I got caught again in 2014 I just decided I needed something new, and that's when I went into drug court," Shandera said.

Schandera went into the treatment program on Aug. 21, 2014, and immediately started going to classes and narcotics anonymous meetings. The accountability, he said, is what helped him stick to the program.

"I liked the structure," Schandera said. "At first there are a slot of drug screenings and that helps keep you accountable, and then the classes help teach you about your triggers and help you find out what made you start use in the first place."

Schandera said he started using drugs at age 11.

"There were boys at school who were smoking pot and I tried it and liked it and over the years it just led to more and more things," Schandera said.

Schandera said that the weekly meetings with other people in recovery helped give him a sense of community.

"I like going to the different meetings and talking to all of the people," Schandera said. " I've even been to four conventions where they have recovering people speak about their journey and there are workshops to help you with your own recovery. They also have dances and events- it's great to see thousands of people in recovery just like you. One of our readings says NA is a society of men and women for whom drugs has become a major problem: it's a community."

Schandera said that realizing the judges and counselors in the treatment court really just want to help people get clean and stay clean was an epiphany for him.

"People in jail said that treatment court programs are set up to make you fail, but it's not true," he said. "If you want help they will help you, and if you are open minded and willing to change they are open to you. The program helped me tremendously and showed me a new way of life."

After two years in Dawson County's Treatment Court Program, Schandera graduated with no sanctions and a new outlook on life.

Established in 2006 under the guidance of Judge Jason J. Deal, Dawson County's treatment court was created as an alternative to jail for offenders, who voluntarily enter a guilty plea and accept two years of treatment.

The 24-month treatment focuses on creating positive life choices and increasing family relations, employment and fiscal responsibility. It also works to lower criminal behavior, substance abuse and health risks.

Felony drug charges are dismissed after completion of the program.

DCN Regional Staff Nick Watson contributed to this article.