MOUNT VERNON — Turning life around with a drug or alcohol addiction requires a lot of support from friends and family, community members and even the legal system itself. The MERIT court program through the Mount Vernon Municipal Court held its summer celebration Wednesday afternoon at Ariel-Foundation Park to reflect on the progress of participants, graduate a member of the program and offer support to three incoming members.
The Mandated Education and Referral Into Treatment drug court program is to assist those with high risks, high needs and limited means to take control over their lives, Municipal Court Judge John Thatcher told the News. It has been certified by the Supreme Court of Ohio for 2 1/2 years.
The program is organized into four phases, Thatcher said. The small celebration graduated participants into new phases, with Brandy Ballengee and Abbie Hinger both graduating from phase two into phase three of the program. Additionally, Roy Matheny officially graduated after a year and a half in the full program.
“The program helped me a lot,” Matheny said. “It helped me put my life back together and I’ve got a good job now. It showed me a different way of thinking about things.”
There are 20 current members of the program, program coordinator and MERIT court probation officer Joel Carter told the News. There are 13 people waiting to join the program, he said. There have been six total graduates from the program, including Matheny, with five employed full-time and the remaining graduate attending college classes to become a certified chemical dependency counselor.
“The benefits for the participants in the program are huge,” Carter said. “They’re getting confidence in themselves, attaining and excelling at sobriety and they’re changing their whole lifestyle. I’ll give them recommendations for jobs and housing, providing they’re doing well. We try to steer them in directions that will be long-term, not short-term, which could even include adult education classes or trades. Anything we can do to make it sustainable long-term.”
MERIT court participants have to be convicted of a criminal offense with a minimum of 60 days of jail time, Thatcher said, as well as a diagnosis of a drug or alcohol abuse disorder and the mental health capacity to handle the program. The participants engage in mandated drug and alcohol counseling, mental health counseling, as well as mandatory community service hours, he said.
The participants engage in community service around Mount Vernon, Fredericktown and Centerburg, Thatcher said, by mulching, weeding and painting at Ariel-Foundation Park; trimming weeds at the bike trails, picking up litter on highways and, Sept. 15, the participants will help clean up the Kokosing River, he said.
“There are community service opportunities just about every other Saturday throughout the year,” Thatcher said. “The main reason for community service is to give people a sober activity that’s also social. They’re getting together with other people like them and doing something positive for the community and learning how to work together.”
The participants in the program, Thatcher explained, are of the highest risk to re-offend.
“The benefit to the community and the changes that I’ve seen are the people who without the program would be continually breaking the law.” Thatcher said. “They’re not breaking the law anymore, they’re not violating their probation and they’re not having to be jailed. They’re doing what they’re supposed to do.”
The program runs approximately 18-24 months, Thatcher explained, with many of the participants on two years of probation. The majority of the program participants are employed full-time or are working to be employed full-time throughout their time in the program, Thatcher said.
“We’re showing them that they can have a better life without drugs or alcohol, by making new friends, doing things to help out their community, learning to trust their probation officers and the people in the drug court treatment team,” Thatcher said.
Community partnerships are vital to the success of the program, Thatcher said, with the Freedom Center, Touchpointe Life Center, Riverside Recovery and the United Way mentioned.
The program’s emphasis on health is an important step on the road to recovery and it is a pillar for the United Way, explained executive director Kelly Brenneman.
“We’re extremely committed, since health is one of our three pillars, health, education and financial stability. Addiction is such an important part of the health component,” Brenneman said. “Since I’ve been here as director, we’ve really made it a priority to be here to support everyone in recovery and we think that this is a perfect program, to try and rehabilitate instead of incarcerate.”
The United Way provides financial support, community service hours and sponsors a program through Women United called Chris-Fit, explained program director Elizabeth Doolittle. It’s a fitness and wellness program, she said, in which Women United financially supports scholarship opportunities for MERIT court participants to obtain gym memberships or even buy bicycles. The program is named in memory of a Mount Vernon resident, Chris O’Hara, who lost his life due to drug addiction.
These community partnerships are integral to the program, Thatcher explained, because it helps increase the value of the program for the participants and allows them to feel more confident in their recovery.
“It helps them feel valued, that there are people who care about what they are doing,” Thatcher said. “When someone tells you that you’re worthless all the time, eventually you start to believe it. The people today that are coming to this graduation, supporting them, that’s probably the biggest motivators people have, it’s knowing that people in the community care about them.”
The program transforms the lives of participants in many different ways, Carter explained during the ceremony.
“We’ve taken you from ‘those people,’ those addicts on the street and turned you into ‘these people’ that are doing so much better and giving back to the community,” he said. “I think that’s what MERIT court really does.”
After the ceremony, Thatcher and Carter led the group on a climb of the Rastin Observation Tower to encourage the participants to look at Mount Vernon with a brand new perspective.
Many of the participants were wearing customized T-shirts with the phrase “stay humble,” written on the front. Humility is an important part of the recovery process, participants Hinger and Stephanie Kelley explained to the News.
“It’s a reminder to stay humble,” Kelley said. “With addiction that’s a really big part of recovery and addiction, to stay humble. It’s to remember where you came from. It’s [The program] a good support system, which is very important for addicts, because addicts seem to feel lonely a lot of the time. You can’t trust yourself when you’re just coming into recovery, because it’s just not going to work when you’re doing it by yourself.”
Hinger added, “Our way never worked for us, so trying this with the support that we have, it’s a big help.”