Mississippi judge tells drug court grads their lives start now

Published 8:00 am Sunday, October 2, 2022

It took a lot of hard work. They had to overcome numerous obstacles. Some doubted they would ever make it. But the time finally came to celebrate their successes.

It was a celebration of accomplishment and new beginnings.

The 12th Circuit Court recently held a commencement ceremony for those who completed the Veterans, DUI and Drug Court programs in Forrest and Perry counties.

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Judge Bob Helfrich started the program, which has seen over 20 years of men and women turning a new page to start the next chapter of their lives.

Guest speaker and author Sidney Smith gave an inspiring talk about Roger Bannister, who in 1954 became the first person to run the mile in under 4 minutes. The previous world record holder was Gunder Hagg, who was documented to running the mile in 4 minutes, 1.3 seconds in 1945. Bannister made the mile in 3 minutes, 0.96 seconds.

Since then more than 20,000 people have run the mile in under 4 minutes, Smith said.

“There is one simple reason he was able to do it, folks,” Smith said. “He believed he could.”

He added that Bannister’s faith in himself inspired others to attempt the feat.

“If you choose to believe, it’s possible,” Smith said to the graduates. “There ain’t nothing you can’t do.”

“All of you got me beat,” he added. “Why? Because you got your record expunged. Guess who ain’t? Me. So you’re already ahead of the game on me.”

Smith talked about his days as a youth in Oakland, California, and his dive into drugs and crime that lasted almost 30 years. After spending more than a decade in prison, Smith went to college and earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Southern Mississippi. He credits “one real encounter with Christ” for turning his life around.

“I was a dope fiend,” he said in an earlier story. “I didn’t go there thinking Christ could change me. I went there thinking I was so dirty and done so much wrong.”

Smith now works for the federal government and had his voting rights restored through the Mississippi Legislature.

Crossing the stage at the Lake Terrace Convention Center in Hattiesburg and transitioning to a new life is the work of roughly three years of participation in the court program. It takes community and family support, law enforcement input and most of all the participants’ commitment.

Veterans program graduates include Reginald, Gregory, Jerry, Irwin, and Brook. No last names are given to protect the privacy of the graduates, who also start their lives with clean slates and expunged criminal records.

The largest number of graduates come from Drug Court: Megan, Rayburn, John, Buford, Vanessa, Brittany, Misty, Anna, Brad, Anthony, Angelica, Charlotte, Tessa, Russell, Dalton, Paul, Billy, Chris, Patrick, and Heather.

Graduates who were unable to attend include Tyler, Brian, and Shawn.

Some participants talked about their experiences or thanked those who helped them through the program.

Angelica, instead of speaking, sang a verse of “Amazing Grace.”

Regardless of whether the participants spoke or quietly went back to their seats, they stood taller and smiled wider than they did when they first walked in.

“This is really a commencement ceremony,” Helfrich said. “Graduation means you finished something. Well, this is a commencement because you are starting something. You are starting a life clean and sober.”