Graduation day: A drug court milestone

Participant Jeremy Athey, of Winchester, speaks during the commencement ceremonies for the first drug court in Winchester on Wednesday. Athey and two others graduated during the event held in a courtroom at the Winchester Judicial Center. Rich Cooley/Daily

WINCHESTER — There was a celebratory tone inside the Northwestern Regional Adult Drug Court Wednesday, as the court held its first commencement celebration for three participants.

As the commencement event began, judges R. Neil Bryant and Alex Iden praised the participants for the work they put into the program.

“This is serious, serious stuff,” Iden said. “These graduates – soon-to-be graduates – have worked hard.”

Throughout the proceedings, the judges and members of the community stressed that the participants would still have a lot of work ahead of them.

Brad Hill, a pastor at Grace Downtown of Winchester who has struggled with addiction himself, urged the participants to continue reaching out for help.

Deborah Thomas, left, Sabrina Weaver, center, and Jeremy Athey, right, stand inside the Winchester courtroom on Wednesday. The three make up the first graduation class of the region's first drug court. Rich Cooley/Daily

“This thing we call ‘commencement,’ if we look it up in the dictionary, it doesn’t mean a finality of sorts,” Hill said. “It means a new start.”

Hill particularly wanted the participants to reach out to other community members who have also struggled with addiction. Those are the people, he said, who understand how hard it is to recover from substance abuse.

“The normals don’t get it,” Hill said.

But they also praised the work the participants put into recovering and said that recovering from substance abuse is worthwhile.

“Recovery is an incredible journey,” Hill said.

Commencement speaker Bradley Hill, senior pastor of Grace Downtown in Winchester, speaks to the first graduating class of the region's drug court on Wednesday. Hill is a recovering addict. Rich Cooley/Daily

At the end of the commencement event, each of the three graduating participants came before the judges, hearing the judges comment on their progress throughout the drug treatment program.

The participants then spoke before a packed audience about their recovery.

Participant Jeremy Athey said that he was looking to become a peer recovery specialist. Treatment centers like the Northwestern Community Services Board often hire peer recovery specialists who are recovering addicts to help people in their recovery.

Athey credited these groups for helping him to recover.

“Some of the things I said in these groups are probably pretty crazy,” Athey said. “But these people understood what I said.”

Frederick and Winchester circuit court judges Neil Randolph Bryant, left, and Alexander R. Iden, right, give a standing ovation to the first three graduates of the area drug court. Rich Cooley/Daily

Deborah Thomas also said that she plans to help others struggling with addiction. “Helping others is also important to me,” she said.

Thomas described herself as a “monster” when she first entered the program.

“For so long, I lied to myself and I didn’t even realize I was lying,” she said.

“I have blossomed into something beautiful and worthy,” she added. “I didn’t think I was worthy for a long time.”

Sabrina Weaver said that she came into the program dismissing most of her actions as simply being the actions of an addict. But over time, she said, she came to think of herself as more than just an addict.

“I am working to be a better mother, a better daughter, a better friend,” Weaver said.

The commencement was a first for the Northwestern Regional Adult Drug Court. People in the drug court are required to participate in the program for at least one year, receiving treatment services through the Northwestern Community Services Board.

The program is funded through a $350,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs. Funding from that grant is set to expire at the end of September 2019.

According to the grant proposal, the program plans to have 56 participants by the time the grant funding expires. The program serves Winchester and Frederick and Clarke counties.

The drug court started after the region saw a spike in overdoses and an increase in narcotic arrests between 2012 and 2015.

“Like many other areas of the Commonwealth and the country, courts in the 26th Judicial Circuit are struggling with ways to effectively address the problem of substance abuse within the criminal justice system,” the grant proposal reads.

The next commencement for the program is set to occur in February.