LACONIA — One year ago, neither Nicole Center or Shane Mitza thought they'd be the guests of honor in a circuit court room, although both had seen their fair share of the insides of them.
Both, for different reasons, were facing felony convictions and well on their way to jail but for the intervention of Recovery Court — an all volunteer program in Belknap County that allows people who are facing felony charges and who admit that alcohol and drugs are the catalysts for their behavior to enter a comprehensive recovery program in lieu of jail.
"It's been a tough year," said Center yesterday at a well attended Recovery Court graduation ceremony in the 4th Circuit Court, Laconia Division, who said she was grateful she got arrested two years ago. "It's weird to say that but my life has changed."
Describing herself as "eternally grateful," Center not only attended 51 counseling sessions, 30 group sessions, and a special weekly counseling session, she did community service and worked a full-time job where she earned two promotions. She is also a single parent.
Shane Mitza, said Horizons Behavioral Health Coordinator Jacqui Abikoff, came into the program with sole goal of getting out and avoiding jail.
"He thought he could beat the system but the system beat him," Abikoff said while Mitza laughed at her observation.
Mitza said he'd been dealing with Judge Jim Carroll for the last 20 years but now "I can face Judge Carroll with pride, not disdain or worry."
"My son told me he thought I'd be dead by now," Mitza said. "Those words really meant something."
He told the crowd of fellow recovery members, dignitaries from the state, county and local government including Sen. Jeanie Forrester and Joe Harding, the director of the Bureau of Drug and Alcohol Services, that once he entered recovery all of his "so-called" friends were gone but now he has new and better friends.
He especially wanted to thank his wife for sticking with him through the lowest points in his life, his father and his children.
Mitza, who did his community service working in maintenance and landscaping at the 4th Circuit Court, Laconia Division, caught the attention of one of the security officers who gave him a job with his landscaping company.
He said he wanted to thank him and a second friend who also stood by him giving him rides, and occasionally money, to see him and his family through some rough times.
He said the entire recovery court team "helped him become the person he always wanted to be."
This is the second year of Recovery Court, which is called Drug Court in the other nine New Hampshire counties. Judge Carroll wanted his court to focus on recovery and thought that's what he would call it. It is the only "drug" court in the state without any public funding.
Carroll, who was overwhelmed with emotion during the graduation ceremony, said Mitza and Center have been stellar during their year with him. He said he saw Mitza at Mitza's son's high school graduation where he said Mitza told him that in his former life he probably wouldn't have remembered it.
Carroll said that not only did Center and Mitza go through recovery but their families and their community went through it with them and had their backs during it.
Keynote speaker Joe Harding, who is also the director of the Governor's Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention, Treatment, and Recovery, told the audience that one of his goals is preventing addiction problems before they begin.
He said prevention starts with doctors and physicians who can get to people before they become addicted to drugs or alcohol.
Acknowledging he began recovery 26 years ago, he said he may have once been a candidate for a Recovery Court. He said the cycle begins when people become disconnected, more distant and more likely to use drugs and alcohol.
"Desperate people do desperate things and they end up in our judicial system," he said.
He said Abikoff's earlier plea for money from the federal and/or state government would probably fall on deaf ears.
Noting all of the community leaders who came to court to support Mitza and Center, he said the local community needs to take this program, raise the issues of drug and alcohol abuse and kept them in the forefront.
Judge Carroll said we all live one day at a time. Paraphrasing an article he said he had read over the weekend, Carroll noted that we all live "one day at a time."
He said yesterday is gone forever and nobody knows what tomorrow will bring so today is all we have — but today can be life-changing.
Recognition also went to Judge Williard "Bud" Martin who, through the Annette P. Schmitt Trust Fund made some money available to Horizons Counseling Center to keep the treatment portion of the program going.
He also thanked Harding who was able to defer some of the costs of the Nathan Brody Program to make the program affordable and accessible for those who need it.
Abikoff announced that Mitza and Center both entered the program on the same date and both have agreed to stay on a mentors for those who come after.
Recovery Court meets weekly at noon and a made possible through the private efforts and time of Judge Carroll, Belknap County Attorney Melissa Guldbrandsen, Restorative Justice Program Director Brian Loanes, Laconia City Prosecutor Jim Sawyer, the Public Defenders Office headed by lead attorney Jesse Friedman, Department of Corrections Superintendent Daniel Ward, the N.H. Department of Probation and Parole whose local office is headed by Serene Eastman, and Jacqui Abikoff of Horizons Counseling Center in Gilford.