Five Hall County residents stood shoulder to shoulder with a judge Thursday in a way they hadn't before.
Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin wore no black robe and delivered no sentence.
Instead she offered congratulations on hard work, encouraged goals and offered reassurance to the men and women who graduated the mental health court program - Health, Empowerment, Linkage and Possibilities - known as H.E.L.P.
"This is one of my favorite things to do," Gosselin said. "It's a wonderful thing to see all the progress that has been made, all the effort that has been made to help folks get themselves to a better place, to be more independent, stronger people."
The small morning ceremony took place in Gosselin's fourth-floor courtroom where about 30 people gathered to support the graduates. Many chose to sit near the back of the room. But Gosselin called the guests of honor to the front with a smile on her face.
She introduced them one by one, touching on each person's strengths as well as mentioning the weaknesses that brought them to her. The positive themes that emerged were care, support and flexibility.
"Flexibility is extremely important when you are dealing with folks with mental illness. They struggle greatly with all aspects of life," Gosselin said after the ceremony. "We judge progress over the long haul."
Such graduation ceremonies are routine in the Hall County Courthouse, where six accountability courts exist for men and women guilty of certain misdemeanor and felony offenses such as driving under the influence and drugs.
How H.E.L.P. differs from the rest is its focus on those offenders with mental health diagnoses. Time allowed to fulfill the program's demands is another difference, said Debbie Mott, agency director for Northeastern Judicial Circuit Treatment Services.
Participants in the intensive, multi-agency program H.E.L.P. often spend years working with counseling and legal staff to address personal problems and illnesses contributing to earlier run-ins with law enforcement.
Not all of the graduates succeed, of course. Nearly 11 percent of those who complete the program will suffer a major setback within two years, said J. Denise McKinney, H.E.L.P.'s clinical coordinator.
But support is available, and re-entry into the program is allowed.
"We have an after-care program they transition into, where for a period for time, we can keep our communication with them and their health care providers," McKinney said, following the ceremony. "We see mental illness as a lifelong issue. Mental illness does not go away. When and if they re-offend, they are allowed to come back in as long as their offenses (meet the criteria)."
No one present Thursday openly discussed the possibility of failure.
What Gosselin focused on were the comments made directly to her in exit interviews, one-on-one conversations held in her chambers.
Called by their first names only as a matter of privacy, Eliseo, Phillip, Lisa, Dena and Roger demonstrated a range of ages, experiences and goals.
One plans to attend school and become a radiation technician. Another hopes to pursue his music career, care for his aging mother, and continue following the rules of society and the law.
Two more desire to continue supporting their children in a better way. One woman touched her heart in thanks to court officials who helped her "become the mother she wants to be."
Each graduate received a certificate as well as a special gift, which Gosselin explained.
The handmade plaques featured plastic round lights, the kind you press outdoors when the sun goes down or inside when the power fails.
They are to serve as reminders, Gosselin said, of the paths they chose and the help that's available when times grow dark.
"Here's your light," Gosselin said to each of them, "let's see if it works."
Each light flashed bright.