Once more, ‘Grace and Grit’ gives recovery court graduates new life

Published 4:47 pm Thursday, November 30, 2023

By Buzz Trexler
Star Correspondent
It takes grace, it takes grit, and it takes being “all in.”

That was the consistent message given during the 1st Judicial District Felony Recovery Court graduation program held Wednesday night at Carter County Courthouse. Past graduates were guest speakers, and those graduating were celebrated by family members, the judicial and treatment teams, and others in recovery.

As in the past, “Grace and Grit” was the event’s theme, but as the program’s alumni and newly graduated spoke in front of a packed courtroom, it was clear that embracing and extending grace, while showing grit – an indomitable spirit – are key to recovery.

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“We used to have different themes we would come up with, and there would be big, long words, and sentences, and all of that,” Criminal Court Judge Stacy L. Street recalled. “One time we hit on ‘Grace and Grit’ and it really stuck with me. To me, that epitomizes everything that it takes to make it in this program.

“You all know what grace is,” Street said. “Grace is when you receive something that you don’t deserve. Mercy is when you don’t get something that you do deserve. That’s what this program does: It gives people a chance at grace. … The only way you get that grace is with the grit to do the work.”

Street reminded past and current participants he uses the same speech when addressing those who come before him to be part of the recovery program: “You’ve got to be all in. You can’t keep one foot in addiction and one foot in treatment …”

The judge said, “We’ve got plenty of slots in this program and we’re going to use them for people who are going to take advantage of it. If we have people that are not ‘all in,’ we’re going to throw them out and put somebody in there that’s going to work the program.”

Street said the graduates “epitomize what I’m talking about. They are living, breathing proof that if you go all in, you can change your life.”

The fall 2023 graduates included:

— Dalton Stines, of Carter County, who entered the program in December 2020. “He could have done his sentence a long time ago,” Criminal Court Judge Lisa Rice said, noting that he was given a three-year prison term. “Dalton is not a 21-year-old kid anymore, making bad choices. Dalton is an accomplished person in this program. He has got his sentence pretty much behind him at this point.”

“To be honest with you, I never thought I would be up here when I first got here. I didn’t know if I wanted to be up here when I first got here,” Stines said, then credited Rice and the other team members who “kept pushing me to be the man I could be and the man I am today, and I’m just really grateful for that. I’m grateful for the life I’m given and the opportunity.”

— Kelsei Yates, of Carter County, who entered the program in 2022. “This girl is super intelligent. She is super hard-working. Her whole life’s in front of her. She just didn’t know how to get there,” Street said. “I think this program kick-started her. Now, she’s 21 months sober.”

“I’m very grateful for this program,” Yates said. “At first, I didn’t think I could do it. Now, here I am, doing it. I’m very appreciative of everybody that’s helped me along the way.”

— Hollie Campbell, of Washington County, who entered the program in 2022. “Judge Rice and I had talked to our group on Wednesday night and told our team that the group that we have right now seems to be the best group that we’ve ever had,” Street said. “I attribute that to Dalton, to Kelsei, and to Hollie, because you’ve led by example.”

The judge pointed to Campbell as an example of perseverance in that she experienced numerous struggles along the way. “To be honest with you, I just kept waiting on this girl just to quit,” he said, explaining that the rough road of life sometimes leads people to use again. “That’s something Hollie’s learned, to face those demons right square in the face,” using tools she’s learned in the program.

“What this program has done for me and means to me, it means a lot. It means a living,” Campbell said. “It’s taught me how to live on life’s terms, to wake up every day to know that I’m worthy of the life that I’m living.”

ALUMNI TESTIFY

Chris Hagy, who was the first participant to graduate after the program started in 2017, spoke of defining grace as “an unmerited gift” and “elegant movement,” but acknowledged, “my movement the first days … were anything but graceful. But what I was shown was a lot of grace from the team. I was given chance after chance, none of which I deserved.”

Concerning grit, Hagy said, “There’s always that option to just give up. You can always just make the choice to say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to serve my sentence.’ It did take the grit quite a few times to not do that, to complete the program. It takes a lot of it today, for me.”

Hagy said he is currently in long-term recovery and no longer on probation. “I don’t have any consequences over me besides my life falling apart if I was to use again,” he said. “But to me, that is enough to not do that,” adding it takes “perseverance and grit” to get through life every day.

Another alumnus, Tabatha Fatolitis, said grit enabled her to “let my failures become lessons. Recovery court helped me recognize that my sobriety, earning trust from my family, custody of my children, and a new way of life was going to take a lot of grit to get there.” She credited “grace from my higher power, and grace from recovery court and Families Free at a second chance at life.” She told the new graduates, “Remember, it does not end here. This is just your beginning.”

Other alumni speaking included Jennifer Dixon Rose and Kevin Woodby.

In addition to Street and Rice, other recovery court team members include Lisa Tipton, Families Free executive director; Robin Ledford Garner, Families Free clinical director; Rachel Roden, recovery court program manager; Carmen Phillips, recovery court coordinator; Darcee Kubisiak, district attorney; Melanie Sellers, public defender; Tonya Range, Carter County Sheriff’s Department; Emily Rogers, Tennessee Department of Correction; Daniel Clendenin, Alternative Community Corrections Program, probation; Jay Authur, Carter County Bar Association liaison; and Deborah France, Washington County misdemeanor coordinator.

“Family members may not know this,” Rice said in recognizing judicial and treatment team members, “but these folks donate, basically, their time every week for events like this, as well as additional consultation, emails, phone conversations, meetings that we have, to help all the people in recovery.”

ABOUT RECOVERY COURT

The 1st Judicial District Felony Recovery Court started in 2017 and since that time has now graduated 34 participants.

“It takes a minimum of 18 months to complete the program,” said Roden, program manager. “Participants are engaged in weekly treatment sessions, individual counseling, recovery meetings, community service, case management and probation appointments.”

The 1st Judicial District Felony Recovery Court is one of the state’s 82 recovery courts. According to the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, recovery courts were created “to reduce correctional costs, promote safety, and improve public welfare.” Only non-violent individuals with substance abuse disorders can participate in the program, which includes judicially supervised treatment, periodic drug testing, community supervision, intensive outpatient services, trauma groups for males and females, outpatient groups, parenting education, and family therapy.

Roden said the court takes referrals from all four counties in the district: Carter, Washington, Unicoi, and Johnson. In 2022, the recovery court was named a national adult drug court mentor court by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

ABOUT FAMILIES FREE

Families Free Inc., a 501(c)3 organization established in 2002, oversees the recovery court and programs are funded by the state and private donations. Its board of directors includes Aliceson Bales, Matthew Cleek, Rebecca Davis, Tai Egres, Laura Garrett, Darcee Kubisiak, Kim Hale, Nancy Storie, Stacy Torbett, and Tina Wilson

Families Free worked with county and state leaders to establish the Northeast Tennessee Regional Recovery Center (NTRRC) in Roan Mountain, which officially opened its doors with a ribbon cutting in July. NTRRC was financed by 11 counties and cities with funds obtained through the $35 million Endo Pharmaceuticals opioid settlement. The first five years of operational funds for the facility will come from state grants, with renewed grants on a yearly basis.