The Steele County Safe & Drug Free Coalition and Steele-Waseca Drug Court celebrated several successes from the last year during a picnic on a pristine Wednesday afternoon.

This was the first year the two organizations combined their events, said Andi Gaffke, coordinator for the Coalition. The Coalition “empowers youth to choose chemical-free lifestyles,” and “some of our best volunteers come from the recovery community.”

Those individuals “really take it to heart,” Gaffke said. “We really appreciate them.”

This is the fifth year of Steele-Waseca Drug Court, and “we work with” numerous “community partners,” said Nicole Grams, the program’s coordinator. Many of those entities were represented Wednesday, with some receiving awards, including members of Owatonna Community Education, who were honored for helping adults attain their GEDs, among other contributions.

Achieving a GED not only gives individuals “a leg up in the job market,” but boosts their self-confidence, as well, said Joseph Bueltel, assistant chief judge for the third judicial district. These community education staffers “work super-hard with our group.”

“I love my job,” said Angela Donlon, an Adult Basic Education teacher in Community Education. “I feel so lucky to be there every day and part of (their) journey.”

“The struggles are worth it,” Donlon added. It’s “overwhelming to watch the successes.”

Among those success stories is Shavon Hodges, a drug court graduate who achieved her GED with the help of instructors like Donlon and Kim Reyant, adult learning center site supervisor in Community Education.

Those individuals “have been the best thing that could ever happen to me,” Hodges said. Hodges had been trying to attain her GED since being incarcerated at age 18, but it “wouldn’t work,” because no one was willing to devote the time to provide her the assistance she needed.

However, the team in Community Education “never gave up on me,” and “I love you,” Hodges said. “Without you, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Hodges never thought she’d have a shot at college, but she’s now “trying,” she said. “If I can do it, (any of you) can do it.”

Another winner Wednesday was Howard Lestrud, who received the Community Partner Award.

Lestrud has covered almost every drug court graduation and written detailed stories about them for the Steele County Times, Bueltel said. Lestrud’s pieces “show what we do in drug court and why we do it.”

Drug court “graduates and those behind the scenes have done a fabulous job,” Lestrud said. “It’s been an inspirational experience for me to cover (them).”

Several drug court alums were in attendance at the picnic Wednesday, and “we like to see our graduates coming back,” Grams said. It shows those individuals are “continuing to live long, healthy lives” following their drug court experiences.

The Steele Waseca Drug Court, which has graduated more than 40 individuals since its inception, is a voluntary program created by the District Court that allows eligible defendants to reduce their prison or jail sentences in exchange for completing substance abuse treatment and meeting other conditions. The program uses a team approach to deliver evidence-based practices including rigorous treatment, intensive supervision, random and frequent drug and alcohol testing, court appearances, licensed mental-health service providers, and educational programming.

The Steele County Safe and Drug Free Coalition employs seven strategies to affect community change, according to Gaffke. The organization attempts to provide information, enhance skills with workshops, offer support — including to those trying to kick their addictions — increase access and reduce barriers, change consequences via incentives and disincentives, alter environments, and modify policies.

The Coalition will have a booth, “Hidden in Plain Site,” at the Steele County Free Fair, where they’ll educate adults on how to spot signs of substance abuse in youth, Gaffke said Wednesday. “You don’t need to be an expert” to notice signals and then “start a conversation.”

Reach Reporter Ryan Anderson at 507-444-2376 or follow him on Twitter @randerson_ryan

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