Thursday’s graduation day lacked caps and gowns and was a little less formal than traditional pomp and circumstance, but it was no less joyous for the participants who filled the third-floor courtroom in the Ellis County Court House.

The six who graduated were among the first to be sentenced 15 months ago to Drug Court and complete its five phases that aim to treat the offenders’ drug problem and give them the tools to not return to their former habits.

Drug Court, while a part of an offender’s sentence with strict requirements, is often informal in its proceedings when it meets every two weeks in the second-floor courtroom of 23rd Judicial District Chief Judge Glenn Braun. He likens Drug Court to more of a conversation between him and each individual, where they share their ups and downs in their lives.

Braun opened Thursday’s graduation by saying it would be a bit more formal than normal due to its location in the larger third-floor courtroom of District Judge Blake Bittel, but any decorum ended as Braun called the first member of the six to the floor.

“When we were planning this, I had some hesitation about this part, especially when they said we were going to go in alphabetical order. Mark, the floor is yours,” he said to Mark Bryant.

Bryant promptly stepped in front of the bench, raised his arms and screamed “Whooooo!” getting laughs and applause from the more than 150 people gathered for the event. The crowd included family and friends of the graduates, the Drug Court team and other court officials, law enforcement, and — perhaps most importantly — the other 29 Drug Court participants, including some brand new to the program.

“It’s exciting for them to see this and hopefully get some motivation to keep doing a good job,” said Court Services Officer Teresa Greenwood, who is Drug Court coordinator.

Just as important were the people who were not there, Bryant said in his remarks.

“If you look around right now,” he said, addressing the others going through Drug Court, “all your usin’ buddies, quote-unquote friends, ain’t none of them here supporting you. But those of us here who have found recovery and sobriety, we’re all here to help.”

Each of the graduates was called in turn, receiving a certificate for the accomplishment. Some even got congratulations from their arresting officer. And all had a chance to speak. Some joked, others were humble. They thanked those who supported them. And each spoke of how their lives had changed since August.

They spoke of getting custody of their children again, finishing high school and even starting college, holding a steady job for the first time.

There were some laughs as well as the graduates reacted to seeing their booking mugshots on a big screen.

Ashlee Forde, who had been charged with possession of meth, said Drug Court was the best thing that had happened to her.

“It took me 15 months to realize it,” she said.

“I will be a year clean Jan. 7. And that’s the first time I’ve been clean more than a year in almost 12 years,” she said.

She thanked her corrections officer and her family for their support, and said she has the opportunity to get full-time custody of her children back in March.

Amie Greenwood thanked her corrections officers and especially John Trembley, director of Northwest Kansas Community Corrections, whom Braun said deserved much credit for Drug Court’s success.

“The last 18 months taught me a lot, made me a better person,” Greenwood said.

“John Trembley was really hard on me in the beginning, but I appreciate what you’ve done for me,” she said.

The graduates also had advice for those still going through the program.

“You only get out of it what you put into it, so stay strong and you’ll make it,” Dustin McNeill said.

“Don’t let anyone label you,” said Sierra Carrasco. “I had my share of problems, but I didn’t let anyone tell me who I was or what I was supposed to be.”

“I figured out who I wanted to be and how I wanted to live my life. I figured out that drugs were not going to get me anywhere in life, ever. Ever,” she emphasized.

“Never be ashamed of who you are or where you came from. Use it to inspire you to do something great with your life,” she said.

And they continued to support each other.

“You guys I’m so proud of you,” Nicola Pfeifer said after thanking her family.

The success of Drug Court is seen not just in the people, but also in the finances. The Ellis County Commission granted the program $30,000 in seed money in 2018. Even though he had some concerns about giving that amount of money to an unknown program during a budget crisis, Commission Chairman Dean Haselhorst said it was money well spent.

“For every dollar invested, there’s $27 returned back,” he said.

“Instead of putting people in jail, we’re putting them back in the community. They’re getting jobs, bringing in tax money. They’re buying houses and different things,” he said.

“Putting them in jail, you never see a return because they’re behind bars. They can’t give back to the community. Those six today are going to give back over and over,” he said.

And the Ellis County Drug Court will be able to continue to offer those opportunities to its participants thanks to a federal grant for $406,366.

The three-year grant from the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs helps pay for drug treatment programs for those sentenced to Drug Court, Teresa Greenwood said.

The grant was obtained with the assistance of U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran and U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall.

For her work in Drug Court, Greenwood received the 2019 Rick Land Mental Toughness Extra Effort Award from the Kansas Association of Court Services Officers.