Hall County Superior Court Judge Jason Deal, who heads the drug court program, led the latest graduation ceremony Friday, which featured well wishes and words of advice for the four graduates.
The success story of the day belonged to Gainesville native Corey Cantrell, who went from being a defiant skeptic of the program to a role model for fellow participants.
“I’m proud to say that we named our community service worker of the year Corey Cantrell,” said Scott Broome, program coordinator for Keep Hall Beautiful.
Cantrell became involved about 18 months ago with the nonprofit, a 501(c) organization dedicated to educating citizens about environmental stewardship through volunteer projects like cleanups, special events, recycling and tree plantings.
“Corey would call me every week. ‘Oh, I have four hours, I have 16.’ And I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t think he was going to make it at first,” Broome said.
Yet make it he did, after a long road to recovery.
“He struggled at first, he fought at first, he didn’t want to surrender in our program,” Deal said.
“You have to follow the rules, do what you need to do. Once Corey did that, it became better for him. It became better for all of us,” Deal added to laughter.
Cantrell said he first acknowledged he had a problem with drugs after spending time in Atlanta, and decided to relocate to Gainesville to try and clean up. But the problems followed him to his hometown, and after getting hit with a possession of cocaine charge, he began the drug court program.
“I was down on my knees asking for help. Drug court carried me home. Since then, it’s been a blessing,” he said.
Hall County’s drug court program, founded by Judge John Girardeau more than 10 years ago, is an alternative to incarceration for drug offenders. Successful completion ensures there is never a conviction on record.
But it’s an intensive program that lasts a minimum of two years, and includes group meetings, drug screen and counseling. Not all participants are privy at first to the life changes and structure it demands.
“I struggled in the beginning. Trying to put up a fight, not really submit to everything I was supposed to do, but as the process went on, different stages, I loved drug court, and I became a better man,” Cantrell said.
People in the program helped him straighten his life out and sort out other legal matters hindering his likelihood, like getting his driver’s license back, he said.
The program boasts good statistics overall: less than a 10 percent rate of reoffending (statistics say 8 percent, although Deal said he thinks it may be lower), and a 94.4 percent employment rate.
Part of that success, Deal said, is that the program addresses the root of a drug problem. Cantrell said he started to see a change in his life when he began anger management classes.
“A lot of the times folks that are in drug court have issues other than drugs. Sometimes drugs are just the symptom. And, for Corey, some of it was anger,” Deal said.
Deal gave each of the graduates and opportunity to speak, and for friends, family and fellow participants to speak as well.
“Good job, good job, and don’t cut the trees!” said one of Cantrell’s well-wishers in the crowd.
His case worker Myra Muckle also spoke to his achievement, saying it was a proud day for her as Cantrell was among her first graduating clients.
“I’m so grateful that you want to be a counselor, I think that’s great,” Muckle said.
At the conclusion of the program, Deal stressed an idea that seemed to be key in the recovery of addictions: finding a passion.
“He has aspirations. He wants to be counselor. He wants to give back and be a father. Those are admirable things and what we like to see from our graduates,” Deal said.
“Recovery is a lifelong. It’s like diabetes. You can work to get it under control, but you still have the disease, and you have to work to stay healthy. Whether its going to AA, or being involved and coming back to drug court, becoming a counselor, becoming involved in church, but you’ve got to do something.”