Hamilton County Drug Court participants and graduates are paying it forward this holiday season to those most affected by their battles with addiction: their children.
Using nearly $1,400 they raised among themselves earlier this fall, participants have purchased coats, scarves, mittens and toys as Christmas approaches and temperatures begin to feel like winter, program coordinator Elaine Kelly said. Though they only expected to raise $500, participants and graduates surpassed that and are expanding their mission by asking local businesses for donations as they plan a Santa event on Dec. 22.
Of the roughly 60 participants in the program, about half have children, Kelly said.
At the center of the push are Steve "Blue" Rose and Hannah Ellis, a couple from Rossville, Georgia who have watched children suffer or go into foster care as their parents struggle with addiction.
"It's become a passion for me. ... I know what it was like growing up in foster homes, the feeling when Christmas comes and you didn't get that one little toy — or anything, for that matter," said Rose, who graduated from Hamilton County Drug Court in February and works with a construction company in Chattanooga. "I went through a lot of stuff as a younger adult and as an older adult with drug addiction. My mother and father were addicts. And I have learned to get all of that under control."
After growing up in Tampa, Florida, drifting in and out of jail and undergoing a rehabilitation program in McMinn County, Tennessee, Rose was accepted into the drug court program in May 2016. Designed for people with multiple, nonviolent felony convictions and current criminal sentences, drug court asks them to abstain from drugs, participate in community service, gain employment and earn their GEDs, if they haven't already. In exchange for following the program rules and regularly checking in with sponsors and supervisors, defendants can avoid incarceration.
Earlier this week, the Hamilton County Commission accepted from the U.S. Department of Justice a $500,000 grant that the program applied for earlier this year. That money will kick-start a second drug court in the county's lower courts, one designed to catch people committing addiction-based crimes before they build a larger criminal record.
During one of his first meetings in 2016, Rose said, he noticed a handful of mothers commenting on how they were struggling to afford commodities for their children. That first year, he and his sponsor helped two families. The next year, in 2017, he and Ellis helped four, he said. This year they raised nearly $1,400.
"We started off with that money and did a lot of good with it, buying clothing for drug court participants' children, Ellis said. "[Since then], I went to Publix and they're going to donate milk and cookies for the Santa party. I'm trying to narrow down local businesses and get some toy items. We spent ten or 11 hours on Saturday doing Big Lots and TJ Maxx and Marshalls to get the most bang for our buck.
"I was wrapped up in the same judicial system, even though I was not a member of the drug court," Ellis said. "It's just a blessing that drug court exists and that people take a chance."
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.