I very well remember this event two years ago at Freedom House. Just as today there were amazing success stories. But there were two who made big impressions on me, and sadly they are no longer with us.
One was Arjun Nicastro, a skinny guy with a long pony tail and lot of positive energy, a counselor for Freedom House. He talked, as I remember, about how a life could be thrown away, or thrown away but somehow rescued. As remember he actually pointed to a trash can or a recycling bin, something to make the point that there are human lives that can end up tossed aside. Perhaps I made that part up. But the point was that people can make incredibly bad choices. Some of us when we do make mistakes or bad decisions or fall in with the wrong crowd, we have families with resources to bail us out and get us back on the right track. But that’s not always how the story ends.
What many of us didn’t know then, didn’t know till he died of leukemia about a month ago, was that Arjun himself was one whose life was almost thrown away. As I learned after his death from reading about the fellowship he won to attend the college of social work at the University of South Carolina,
He was a seventh-grade dropout who developed an addiction to heroin at age 14. By the time he was 17 [he] had been convicted of several drug-related crimes and was sentenced to life in prison as a habitual felon. After serving 23 years in prison, he was released in 1998 with $100 to his name and Hepatitis C.
So when Arjun told people they could change, there was no one knew it better than he did.
One of the people who told her story of transformation at that ceremony two years ago was Tami Atwater Mitchell. Tami was addicted to crack by the time she was 19. She went to prison many times for everything from shoplifting to embezzlement. She had been in a terrible cycle of getting high, doing something criminally stupid, and going to prison.
But eventually, she came up against the Drug Treatment Court, and it was the best thing that ever happened to her. She was the program’s first graduate and one of its best advocates. If sentencing that results in prison time is the strict Law of the Father, then what happens in Drug Treatment Court is mothering and fathering at once. If you’ve ever seen Judge Buckner in action, you know what I mean. This is a court that says yes you’ve done wrong, and yes you will pay the price, but no we aren’t interested in throwing you under the jail. We are here to help you understand why you did it and what you need to know to help you not do it again. We are on your side. Your life is valuable, and we don’t want you to throw it away. We are here to support you and help you find your grounding and your moral compass all over again, even if it takes months and years. It’s a pretty phenomenal concept.
This time two years ago, as a graduate of the program, Tami was married and had a son. She was working as an administrative assistant. She owned her own home and car. For her, the terrible cycle had been broken and she had grabbed hold of her almost thrown away life. Life is not fair, though. Tami died in a car accident in January 2006.
While we still miss her, today we have other success stories to celebrate, other lives to hold up and say no, they are not going to the trash heap. Miracles happen in the Orange County Drug Treatment Court. As Judge Buckner says, the participants are the miracles. They make their own miracles happen. But I don’t entirely believe that. No one can do that kind of hard work by themselves. They couldn’t do it without the structure of the Drug Treatment Court and the dedication that the staff brings to their jobs every single day. Together you all are the miracle, and on behalf of the Town of Chapel Hill I’m proud of every one of you.