La PORTE — For a La Porte County resident named Colleen, a stint in jail for drugs ended up being the best thing to ever happen to her.
While mired in drug addiction, the woman lost not only her freedom but custody of her youngest daughter. Behind bars, she was, as she put it, "lost and confused."
Her imprisonment made her finally realize that she had to turn her life around and become the parent her children needed and wanted.
"I no longer wanted to be everyone's burden and the family's disappointment," Colleen said.
To earn her second chance, the woman embarked on the long and arduous path to recovery through the La Porte County Problem Solving Court program.
As Superior Court 4 Judge Greta Stirling Friedman, who oversees the PSC program, described, Colleen was pushed to make dramatic changes through the program, establishing boundaries with others in her life for the first time and cutting out those who refused to follow them.
With the support of her mentors, Colleen got her driver's license, began studying at Ivy Tech Community College, started volunteering at the police department and, most importantly, regained custody of her daughter.
Fighting back tears, Colleen recounted her tale to a receptive audience during the latest PSC graduation ceremony, which took place at the La Porte County Complex Tuesday night.
Colleen and her fellow graduates — Crystal, Democoa and Heidi — are the latest to successfully overcome lives of addiction and crime through the La Porte County PSC program, a highly supervised drug recovery program designed to rehabilitate non-violent offenders struggling with addiction. Including the latest graduates, 49 La Porte County residents have completed the program since its introduction seven years ago, Friedman said.
"These women have found their ways back to their families, jobs and responsibilities," Friedman said. "They're working, they're raising families, paying taxes and volunteering — and they're encouraging others to stay the course. We know that when one person rises out of addiction, despair and a life of crime, we all rise."
Like Colleen, each of the women graduating Thursday has made a remarkable turnaround from a life of crime and addiction, Friedman said.
Crystal entered the PSC program in 2015, shortly after her father approached Friedman outside the courthouse and begged for the courts to give his child a second chance.
Crystal's time in the program transformed her outlook on life. In the last essay she submitted as part of the program, she wrote, "Change nothing, and nothing changes. What comes easy won't last, and what lasts won't come easy," Friedman said.
Democoa entered the program excited about the chance to get out of jail in time for her birthday — but her joy ended quickly, as she soon came to grips with the difficulty of the journey ahead, Friedman said.
Although there was a point where the judge wasn't sure if the program could ever really reach the woman, Democoa's attitude gradually changed. She dropped her guard and genuinely opened herself to change instead of merely going through the motions, Friedman said.
"I'm so glad to see what I see now," Friedman said to Democoa. "You are more calm. You are more organized. You are more confident. You have accomplished so many goals and weathered so many storms."
Finally, Heidi entered PSC when she was just 19 years old — "you were a girl," Friedman said. Through the program, Heidi began to take on more responsibilities and discovered more about herself, developing a love of painting and music and joining a softball team, the judge said.
"There is no doubt, you had challenges during your time in this program," Friedman said. "You had to learn some things the hard way. But you decided, by choice, to be open-minded, and you listened because you wanted recovery more than you wanted anything else."
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, the evening's keynote speaker, congratulated the graduates for their transformations. The former judge — who served as the keynote speaker for the first La Porte County PSC graduation ceremony — told the women that they are now part of an international community of those who have taken a stand against drugs.
"Keep doing what you're doing," Freeman-Wilson said. "Keep moving, because there are people all over this globe who are...counting on your success."
The woman also encouraged the graduates to stay in touch with their drug-court mentors, who will always be there for them, she said.
Among those in the ladies' corner is a former PSC graduate, Donna, who also shared some words of encouragement with them Tuesday. Donna has served as a PSC peer-recovery coach since she completed the program in February 2016, encouraging others to follow the same path she took toward recovery.
Echoing Freeman-Wilson, the woman encouraged the graduates to continue attending meetings, talking with mentors and other activities they did during their time with the PSC program. She also asked the women to serve as role models for those still struggling with addiction.
"You guys are now on solid ground," Donna said. "Now you can reach out and pull somebody out of the muck and show them the straight and narrow paths ahead."
During her remarks, Colleen — whose arresting officer, La Porte Police Department's Matthew Drangmeister, dubbed "Clean Slate Colleen" in a congratulatory letter he recently wrote to her — told her fellow graduates that "our lives are now ours."
Colleen regained control of her life by "changing everything," she said. One of those changes was to disassociate herself with those who weren't on board with her transformation or who contributed nothing but negativity in her life, she said.
Completing the PSC program was not easy, though — it pushes participants to their limits, requiring them to use all the tools they have acquired to cross the finish line, Colleen said.
"I have learned how to be pushed, to pick my battles instead of always arguing my point and not to give up just because things get hard," Colleen said.
She also shared a piece of advice for those still making their way through the program — "don't ever let anyone label you."
"Be more than a recovering addict," Colleen said. "Figure out who you want to be and define yourself. You don't have to live under a negative label for the rest of your life. Only you can change who you are viewed as.
"I used to be ashamed of my life and who I was. Don't be ashamed of your past. Use it. Remember where you came from and use it to help others and inspire yourself and those around you."