Melinda Aponte exuded pride as she stood on the Valencia ballroom's stage Thursday morning to accept her graduation plaque. She faced a standing-room-only crowd and owned up to her past.
"I was a prostitute. I was an IV drug user," she said. "I abandoned my children."
One of 39 treatment-court graduates honored at Thursday's graduation ceremony, Aponte praised and thanked the drug treatment court staff members who helped her forge her new life of sobriety, family and responsibility.
She then took a deep breath and, with her 15-month-old son in her arms, sang the first verse of "Amazing Grace" loudly, clearly and with so much conviction it brought many in the audience to tears.
Aponte, 35, of York, said she's not ashamed of who she used to be.
Moving on: "I came to realize that my past is my past. ... There's no facade anymore," she said. "I've been in and out of jails ... for 15 years of my life."
Aponte spent her adult life plumbing the depths of addiction. She started using heroin at 21 years old, then began smoking crack-cocaine at 26. She was addicted to both at the same time, she said.
"I was homeless. I've eaten out of garbage cans," she said. "The guilt and shame? I had to work on that."
Now Aponte plans to enroll at a local college and hopes to become an advocate for single mothers struggling with abuse, addiction and homelessness. She has been clean for more than 31 months.
Aponte sang on stage, she said, "Because it's been God's grace and mercy that have cured me."
Treatment courts: Thursday's ceremony was for graduates of all the county's treatment courts — veterans, DUI, drug, mental-health and re-entry courts. Re-entry court acts as a safety net for people recently released from state prison by helping them get on their feet.
Treatment courts are designed to keep offenders out of prison and help them become productive, law-abiding citizens by addressing their problems rather than simply locking them up. The program reduces incarceration costs and recidivism rates, advocates say.
Guest speaker Rep. Kevin Schreiber, D-York City, congratulated the graduates.
"You now have a debt to pay this forward," he said.
Schreiber is among the sponsors of House Bill 2180, which would make treatment courts available across the state. Currently, they are available in just 17 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties, he said.
"Intervention instead of incarceration," he said. "That's the message that needs to get out."
'Second chance': Edward Wright III did two tours in Iraq and earned a Purple Heart during his six years with the Marine Corps.
The 33-year-old former sergeant suffers from serious post-traumatic stress disorder issues, which reduced his life to hunkering down in his basement when he wasn't at work, he said. He ignored his wife and family.
"I was probably in the darkest hole I've ever been in ... contemplating whether I wanted to live in this world anymore," Wright said.
Everything changed Nov. 11, 2012, when he and a friend went out to celebrate the Nov. 10 Marine Corps birthday. They had a fight that sent the friend to the hospital, and police arrested Wright. He subsequently was granted permission to participate in veterans court.
"This is one of the hardest things I've had to go through," he said of the program, but noted it has given him his greatest gift:
"A second chance."
Wright said he now has the tools and confidence to deal with his PTSD. He and his wife just had their second daughter.
'Better man': Here's what other treatment-court graduates had to say during the ceremony:
"When my 9-year-old daughter tells me she loves her new mommy, I know I have chosen the right path," Sabrena Meyerhoff said. "Treatment court is a choice. ... Get honest or get out."
"I'm a better man now, plain and simple," said Christopher Boyd.
"I remember thinking it would be easier to go sit in jail," Joshua Horn admitted. "(But) I've learned so much in the last 18 months."
"I will live the rest of my life as an alcoholic. I've accepted that," Brian Marshall said. "But I don't have to die a drunk."
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at email@example.com.