The Dawson County H.E.L.P Court held a ceremony last week at the county courthouse for its two most recent graduates.
Vanessa Hutching and John Ross made the eighth and ninth people to have graduated from the program, which helps provide alternatives to incarceration for those who have mental health issues or mental disabilities, such as providing them with community-based treatment resources to reduce recidivism.
The letters in H.E.L.P. stand for health, empowerment, linkage and possibilities.
Since the court began in March 2013, they have had nine graduates and four babies born free of drugs.
The Jan. 26 graduation was officiated by Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin, who said she was very proud of the two graduates.
Vanessa Hutching began the program in April of 2014, after she was arrested and her children taken away.
Gosselin said that Hutching came into the program very stressed due to the situation, and that gave her the motivation to work hard in the program.
"I have an exit interview with the graduates before they get to this point and I asked her what the program meant to her and she said it would not have been as easy for her to get her kids back if she hadn't had the structure and the help from this program. So we're very pleased about that," Gosselin said.
Hutching has been sober for three years in March, and had only four sanctions while in the program.
"She has learned how to deal with relapse and what her triggers are. She's learned a lot," Gosselin said. "She also, when she came in the program, said that she didn't expect to make friends, and she has. She is very skilled, she makes these gorgeous pieces of furniture from wood pallets, and she's brought some pictures for us to see and she wants to continue to work on her woodworking and see if she can't make that her life. I'm sure if she decides that's what she wants to do, she'll be able to."
Program coordinator Alice Geier said that she enjoyed having Hutching in the program for the insight she gave younger participants who were coming up through the program.
"I would add to that just how great it has been to have you in groups in particular, because you have been a really great mentor to some of the new folks and younger folks when they come in and that has been a really valuable thing to have around," Geier told Hutching. "In fact, you and our other graduate as well, have been not only examples of how to get through the program with few sanctions, but how to apply the things that we want you to learn and the things we put in front of you to accomplish and you've done that very well. I'm very proud of you."
Hutching said that the long road to recovery and sobriety hasn't been easy.
"It's been a long, hard road. You can't just come in here and ride shirttails and expect to get through. You gotta put 110 percent. You can't just fake it till you make it, ‘cause faking it is getting you nowhere," Hutching said. "Now I couldn't be happier, my kids are happier, and everybody says ‘I'm doing it for my kids'. Don't do it for your kids, do it for you. I do it for me so I can make my kids happy."
Hutching said her primary focus moving forward will be on her kids and the coming baseball season, as well as when her 10-year-old and 23-year-old start racing dirt bikes again. She also has a 7-year-old and a 20-year-old.
"We're going to focus on the kids racing and ball and not worry about anything else," Hutching said. "If we're focusing our time on them, we don't have time to think about anything else, no time to think about going out partying and drinking and stuff, so I'm grateful for the program. I had to get real with it and I'm glad I did. I told the judge that if I'd had these tools the first time I got clean, I probably wouldn't have relapsed after seven and a half years of being clean."
Fellow graduate John Ross started the program in August of 2015 and finished with only one sanction. Gosselin said that Ross was a delight.
"Ross has learned coping skills, has learned how to handle his anger, which is what got him in the program," Gosselin said. "The program showed him how to handle situations and showed him how to become clean and sober. He knows to stick to AA meetings and he will continue to go to those."
Geier said that one of the things that stood out the most to her about Ross was his consistent good mood.
"You were the one spot in the room that we could always count on being kind and thoughtful and funny and contributing a really good, lighthearted mood to the group," Geier said. "That really is something that is so needed because we get in deep on things and we talk about serious issues and you did that and were able to do that in a way that really helped other people become comfortable and ease the tension in the room. I'm really going to miss having you in groups. I'm very proud of you."
Assistant District Attorney Conley Greer had perhaps the strongest words in testament to Ross's hard work and determination in the H.E.L.P. Court program.
"[Ross] I am so proud of you for all kinds of reasons," Greer said. "I know what I thought when you came in. And you need to know, you're talking to a person who has to fight cynicism, has to fight to not become just jaded with the things that go on, but you also need to understand that one person can change someone's mind forever. And you did. You did. You changed my mind, you changed my whole office's mind. You had that impact on me. You sir, set a standard that I brag on constantly. You're something that everyone in this room, whether they're in this program or not, should just strive to be. I could be no more proud of a human being than I am right now of you. And I thank you."
Ross said he'd like to thank everyone involved in the H.E.L.P. Court for helping him get to where he is now.
"When I first come in this program I was pretty messed up and everybody has been very professional and really pretty wonderful," Ross said. "I've learned a lot. If I could give any advice it would be if you're in H.E.L.P. Court, make it your first priority and take it one day at a time."
Ross also thanked his sister, Shirlie Tavira, for giving him rides to the H.E.L.P. Court and anywhere else he needed to go.
"I am going to miss all of you in the group, I really am, and I hope we stay in touch," Ross said.
Referrals to the H.E.L.P. court program come from the district attorney's office, the public defender, the Georgia Department of Supervision and others. Any charges are considered excepting sex crimes and extremely violent crimes, and both felony and misdemeanor offenders can be enrolled.
Participants do not receive any kind of promise about the outcome of their sentences once enrolled, and are required to be either employed, pursuing education or doing volunteer work.
Guests at the graduation included District 1 County Commissioner Sharon Fausett, District 4 Commissioner Julie Hughes Nix, District 3 Commissioner Jimmy Hamby, County Manager David Headley and members from Avita, the Adult Learning Center and the sheriff's office.