Grads persevere in spite of steep odds

Junior Gonzalez
  • 30 people graduated from the York County Treatment Court program on Thursday.
  • Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Debra Todd spoke at the event, congratulating the graduates.
  • Graduates thanked the program for giving them a new outlook on life.

It's graduation season in York County, and one unique group of graduates were passionate and emotional about succeeding in changing their lives in a major way, through York County Treatment Court.

As Jose Mercado made his way up to a stage, he wore headphones and stood with a man wearing a head microphone.

“Estoy recibiendo esta felicidad y tristeza a la misma vez,” Mercado said.

“I’m receiving all this happiness and sadness at the same time,” his translator said.

Mercado had just completed a yearlong program through the Treatment Court and was about to receive his plaque of completion, but he found out his half-brother had been killed in El Salvador two days ago.

While unsuccessfully fighting back streams of tears, Mercado stated his pride in himself and dozens of other graduates of the program, which held its spring ceremony at the Appell Center in downtown York on Thursday.

“If we’re here, it’s for a reason,” Mercado said to his fellow graduates. “Maybe we can’t change the world, but we can change our lives,” Mercado said to a rousing applause.

Never give up: Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Debra Todd was the guest speaker at the event and gave words of encouragement to the graduates.

“Babe Ruth once said, ‘You just can’t beat the person that never gives up,’” she said, “Well, none of you ever gave up."

Given the “tremendous difficulties" the graduates encountered, she said she looks forward to seeing them lead stable, drug-free lives.

The more than yearlong program aims to get people sober, back on their feet and become productive citizens of society.

Todd touted the success of the program, including its 5 percent recidivism rate.

She also spoke at length about veterans, who experience homelessness at an alarming rate — a third of all homeless people in the country — and the duty of all residents to help.

“Treatment courts truly help vets find their way back home,” Todd said.

Sole vet: Veterans Court Judge Craig Trebilcock helped introduce David Oldfield, the sole graduate of the Veterans Court program for the spring ceremony.

Tribilcock said he and associates called Oldfield, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, a “soup sandwich," — someone who is apathetic and doesn't want help.

“He quickly turned that around,” Trebilcock said.

Trebilcock said Oldfield found a new mission after taking the program seriously: sobriety and family. Oldfield required an operation during his time in the program and refused the pain medication he was allowed to take for post-surgery pain. “He didn’t want anything numbing his senses,” Trebilcock said.

“That’s the level of level of dedication he had to overcoming his issues,” he said.

Once Oldfield took the stage, he said little. “It’s been a ride,” he said, along with thanking his family and support system at the treatment court.

At one point, a slideshow displayed the photos of the individuals, 30 in all, as well as a slideshow of their lives outside of jail, with families, friends and partners. During the presentation, a quote was shown from Ralph Waldo Emerson, stating, “Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.”

Cheers and laughter could be heard from the audience as recognizable faces came across the monitor.

There are four treatment courts in York County helping people for issues such as DUI, mental health, drugs and alcohol and veterans issues, including post traumatic stress.

Once graduates were named and awarded a plaque of completion, they were offered a chance to speak about their journey.

'A strong soul': From the mental health court, Debra Breeland told her story of “waiting to go back to jail” right after being released. She said  getting through the first — and most difficult — portion of the program was stressful because she felt constrained. “I felt like they were controlling my life,” she said, “but I couldn’t control mine.”

She said she is now two years clean and takes it day by day.

“I don’t stay clean for tomorrow, I stay clean for today,” she said, adding many people who don’t suffer from addiction truly understand the bondage of addiction. “A clean drug addict is a strong soul,” Breeland said.

Drug court: Ellena Ness, who went into the drug treatment program for heroin addiction, said she is immensely grateful for the program. “I’m definitely a different person,” she said.

Ness said she was looking at a substantial jail sentence, and the drug program was availed to her. She said the yearlong program was difficult at first, but looking back, she said she’s surprised by how far she’s come.

“I can’t imagine how I used to be,” Ness said.

Ness said she hopes the program is offered to anyone who gets charged with a serious drug crime.

"I think they should definitely do something like that,” she said. “This program does wonders for people.”