The 200-plus graduates in November, 2017, make a total of nearly 2,500 total Tulare County Adult Drug Court grads since its inception in 1986. Since the course length is 18 months, there is not a graduation every year.
Drug Court supervises drug offenders through treatment and recovery, offering them educational and employment incentives that help them break the destructive cycles of addiction, according to staff. The participants are responsible for their costs of participation including counseling and drug testing. Graduates of Drug Court have much lower rates of recidivism than those incarcerated.
During the before and after photos of each graduate during the November 29 ceremony, cheers rose from the crowd with each clean-up photo. Four graduates spoke during the commencement.
Porterville program grad Chanel Martinez said she started using Vicodin at the age of 17 and became addicted to Ecstasy. Following the death of her father, she began bartending at the age of 20.
“I got high all the time,” she said.
She fell deeper and deeper into her depression, she said. She turned to shooting up heroine, and knew she had gone too far. She stole from anyone in her community she could, in order to get her drugs, and that landed her in jail.
“That was the worst experience in my life,” she said.
She met Tulare County Judge Gary Johnson, who offered her the 18-month program as a way out of jail, as well as a way out of her addiction. It would also offer her structure, which she felt she badly needed.
“I stayed compliant, so I didn’t have to go back to jail,” she said, citing her earlier comment on how much she liked jail.
When she would see Judge Johnson, “He would ask, ‘is there anything I can do for you,’” she said. “Can you imagine?”
Martinez has been clean for three years and one month. “Dad – I love you and I miss you,” she said before leaving the podium.
Jennifer Fisher is also from the Porterville area and attended the program there. She is grateful to be a recovering addict, she said.
“I grew up in a family of alcohol and drug abuse,” she said.
At the age of nine, she smoked Ecstasy and she escalated quickly into using meth, falling into the typical behavior of an addict, she said. At the age of 32, that came to a halt. She was taking the bus home on the evening following Christmas Day, and got off to walk the rest of the way. She noticed a sheriff officer, and he noticed her, her story revealed. He stopped her to talk.
“That was the beginning of my recovery,” she said.
The mother of four became homeless with her children. She started the Drug Court program and they lived in a shelter. She worked anywhere she could – in the fields, on taco trucks, driving a cab, and eventually for the transit company that maintained the bus route she had ridden that fateful night, she said as tears filled her eyes.
Her family moved to a one-room apartment and finally into a larger home of their own. She has driven those same bus lines she used to ride on, and has a better job with better hours. She now has a life that allows her to have goals.
“I have never had that before,” she said. “I never thought I could reach that – thank you Judge Johnson”
Commencement Speaker – “From Dope to Hope”
The commencement speaker, Tim Ryan, traveled from Naperville, IL to the graduation. Ryan is the subject of an A&E documentary on drug addiction, “Drug Man.” He also penned a book, “From Dope to Hope: A Man in Recovery,” which was published earlier this year.
Ryan has one thing in common with Fisher, Martinez, the other grads and most other addicts – abandonment and/or abuse issues.
“I was a dumb kid,” he said in an interview prior to the ceremony. The adopted youngest of four, his older brother traumatized him, he said, and he had been molested at the age of 12 by his babysitter.
Those with abuse or abandonment issues are 48,000 times more likely to become an alcoholic or drug addict, Ryan said.
The 49-year-old father earned a good living in his 20’s, despite being into drugs and alcohol.
“If I can turn my life around, anybody can,” he said.
Ryan has suffered eight overdoses and two heart attacks due to his addiction. When he caused a car accident seriously injuring two people, one of whom was an infant, it was definitely time to turn his life around. He was sentenced to eight years in prison and was sent to Sheridan Correctional Center, which is one of only two prison facilities in the State of Illinois that offers a drug program. By the time he was released, his marriage of 18 years was over, he lost his house, and his eldest son – Nicholas, who had been adopted – died of an overdose.
People have asked him, he said, if the loss of his son brought thoughts of using again. Never, he said.
“My next thought was I’ll be at the next meeting,” he said.
Beyond that he wanted to help others. He has been to 118 funerals and helped 3,000 individuals get into treatment programs.
Five years clean as of November 1, Ryan still attends four meetings a week, he said. He is remarried and has a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. His new wife is also a recovering addict.
Finding “Drug Man”
Judge Johnson has presided over Drug Court for the past five years. When he saw the program, “Drug Man,” on television, he thought, “I need that guy to be my speaker.”
It turned out that Johnson went to school with another judge, who happened to have a brother in show business who knew Ryan. Ryan was asked to speak on a Friday afternoon and by Saturday morning answered back, “I’m in!”
“It was a no-brainer, of course, I’d be there,” he responded.
Ryan did not charge his normal $5,000 speaking fee to Drug Court, but accepted payment for his travel expenses. His customary speaking fees are not income for him, but rather are donated into drug rehab programs he manages.
In the couple of days prior to graduation, Ryan and Johnson had formed a bond. Ryan calls the Tulare County Drug Court program a “model program – a ticket for success.” And, he added, he hopes other programs around the country will take notice and follow the example.
“We are fortunate to have him speak,” Johnson said of Ryan. “Everyone thinks they can do it [become clean], but they are not sure. This gives them the motivation – they make Mr. Ryan a role model.”
“I am the face of heroin,” Ryan said. “But, also of recovery. I am a hope dealer.”