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At Thursday night’s Wyoming/Sullivan Counties Drug Treatment Court graduation at Triton Hose Co., in Tunkhannock, Cassie Holley gives her dad, Dale Belles, holding his granddaughter, a hug for completing the 2-year program. STAFF PHOTO/ROBERT BAKER

BY MICHAEL J. RUDOLF

Wyoming County Press Examiner

Nine Wyoming County residents began a new chapter of their lives on Thursday evening, as they became the most recent graduates of the Wyoming / Sullivan Counties Drug Treatment Court.

Judge Russell Shurtleff commented that the graduates have made a serious effort to overcome drug and alcohol addictions which had previously controlled their lives.

“As we take these people through the program, we get to watch them grow and move through their addiction,” Shurtleff said.

The nine graduates this year were Bryan Colvin, Scott Ramey, Allen Perez, Stephen Pifcho, Matthew Blaisure, Michael Tetlak, Deborah Pringle, Jesse Nulton and Dale Belles.

Over the past several months, they have been attending counseling sessions, working with probation officers and assisting each other to overcome the addictions that led them afoul of the law.

This was the third graduation ceremony the drug court has held since its inception in the summer of 2008. One man was recognized for completing the program in January 2010, while six people graduated last July.

As they received their plaques, this year’s graduates, like their predecessors, told stories of the anguish they caused themselves and their loved ones, and how the treatment court saved them.

“This program was something that I needed in my life,” said Belles. “Before I got into treatment court, I really didn’t care if I lived or died.”

Like the others, Belles thanked the members of the treatment team for their work. But he also thanked his daughter, Cassie Holley, for her support through such a trying time.

“It’s nice to be here for her today,” Belles said.

“He’s really a changed man,” said Holley. “Now I have my dad back.”

Colvin noted that when he entered the program, Shurtleff didn’t have much expectation for him.

“I hate to tell you, but you were wrong. I made it,” Colvin said.

Shurtleff responded by acknowledging the change in Colvin’s life.

“To know you then and to know you now, it’s a true privilege to know you now,” the judge said.

Perez said the program made him realize what his addiction did to those around him.

“In my mind I wasn’t hurting anybody, I was just hurting myself. The truth is I was hurting people,” he said. “It it wasn’t for treatment court, I don’t think I would be standing here today or anywhere else on this earth.”

Before introducing the honorees, Shurtleff noted that while the treatment court participants benefit immensely from the program, the community gains as well.

For example, he said the participants performed more than 3,700 hours in community service work during the past year. Also, the cost of incarcerating prisoners, at an average of $30,000 a year, was eliminated, he said.

However, Shurtleff reinforced the fact that the treatment court is mainly for those who are in it and their families.

“It’s not all money. That’s not the true true benefit of treatment court. Those individuals are able to break the chain of addiction,” he said. “We’ve given them the confidence to move forward, to know they can be an asset to the community.”

Pastor John Shaffer of the Nicholson United Methodist Church was the guest speaker for the evening. He explained the genesis of the treatment court program, which evolved from a meeting of citizens in February 2005 who were concerned about drug and alcohol abuse in the community. The group formed an organization known as Wyoming County CARES, headed by Sandy and Vieczorek and Barb Landon.

“It was because of people like Sandy and Barb that this group took up so many causes in this county,” Shaffer said.

Shaffer added that no matter how many accolades he gives to those who created the program, the ones who go through it deserve even more respect.

“There are heroes in the room tonight because you made the decision to get well,” Shaffer said. “I thank the court system, I thank the counselors, I thank the officers, but I applaud you.”

The graduates weren’t the only people honored at the ceremony. Shurtleff presented several awards to members of the community whom he said helped make the program a success.

The first went to Vieczorek, who helped found the program following the death of her son, Randy, to a drug overdose.

Vieczorek said she appreciated the honor, but the praise should rightly go to the graduates.

“It’s all about you. You should be so proud of yourself for what you’ve accomplished,” she said.

Vieczorek in turn presented awards to the Wyoming County Press Examiner editor Bob Baker – who had worked with Wyoming County CARES in its infancy – and reporter Mike Rudolf for bringing awareness of drug and alcohol abuse to the community.

“Bob was in a unique position to see what substance abuse had done to our community,” Vieczorek said. He has helped us to shine a spotlight on something we needed to look at in the community.”

Shurtleff also presented an award to the counseling agency A Better Today, which provides much of the treatment for drug court participants.

Eric Posner, executive director of A Better Today, said the agency gives back to the community what it gets.

“A treatment facility can only be as good as the support it has from the facility,” he said.

Robert Baker also contributed to this story.