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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 11/21/16. Judge Tom Greenholtz begins the fall drug court graduation in his courtroom on Monday, November 21, 2016.

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Drug Court's largest graduating class keeps eye on future work

Help each other. Listen. And take it one day at a time.

Those were the main takeaways Monday as Hamilton County Drug Court graduated its largest number of people since its founding 11 years ago. Nine people passed into Judge Tom Greenholtz's courtroom wearing shiny green caps and gowns. A golden tassel dangled from each of their caps.

If you think of it as a school, Drug Court is an accountability program with five different grade levels. After each promotion, clients must accept more responsibility as they work to create a firmer, healthier, drug-free life. Any slip-ups could result in prison time for the charges that landed people in custody in the first place.

On Monday, though people were jubilant about their success, they were also mindful of the work to be done.

"What's going through your mind?" Judge Greenholtz asked one graduate.

"How serious this really is," Kevin Green replied. "I was homeless, I went to jail. Out of jail, I didn't even have the clothes on my back. Do what they say. You got any old warrants? Now's the time to take care of that."

As several graduates emphasized, having a firm plan after Drug Court is essential. Back in February, 24-year-old Logan Whiteaker fatally overdosed on a heroin mixture — less than 24 hours after his own graduation.

His mother, Dawn Harrison, who promised to address as many graduating classes as possible since his death, told a courtroom full of past and present clients that she was proud of them.

She wanted to share a story with them, something she hadn't shared with very many people.

"We went through drug rehab, jail, everything," Harrison began. "And one night, I woke up and God said, 'Logan is going to have a testimony.' And he says, 'You're going to have a testimony, too.'

"As Logan got further and further into the drugs, I said, 'God, I don't know about this," she continued.

When Logan made it into Drug Court in 2014, it seemed like a sign, Harrison said. This is when he'll have his testimony, she thought.

"And as all of you know," she said Monday, "he passed away in February. And I was angry for a minute. And then I realized he was going to give his testimony. I just didn't know it would be from the grave."

Other graduates expressed that sense of peace and acceptance, too.

When Jessica Sivley came up to the podium, Greenholtz pointed to her before-and-after photos. That's a mainstay at every graduation, to remind people of how much progress they've made.

In her before picture, Sivley, now 25, was seven years younger.

"Where were you?" Greenholtz asked her.

"I was in hell," she said. "I was using every day. Large amounts. I didn't care if I died — I kind of wanted to."

"So where are you today?" he asked.

"The exact opposite," she said. "Heaven."

Before they left, Greenholtz asked the graduates to remember one thing.

"In a moment, you're going to walk through this door for the last time here in Division II," he said. "And as you're walking, I want you to pause for a moment and I want you to look up and I want you to take note of that. Because this is not the end, this is just the beginning."

As they walked out single file, toward new dreams and old ones, they did just that.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or zpeterson@timesfreepress.com. Follow on Twitter @zackpeterson918.

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