By RAELYNN RICARTE
News staff writer
November 29, 2006
Ayla Nelson is excited about the possibilities in a future that is free from methamphetamine addiction — but she also nervous about making life decisions on her own.
Nelson, 25, will be the first graduate from Hood River County Drug Court on Thursday. Printed on the invitation to her ceremony is this summary thought, “If you can do this, you can do anything.”
She will soon have a chance to live out those words. Nelson is moving to Rhode Island to start a new life. Her older sister, Mariah, whom she had not seen for six years, has lined her up with a job and offered her a home.
“She is so proud of me now. We talk all of the time about different things just like other people do,” said Nelson.
That communication was not possible after Ayla became addicted to drugs and alcohol at the age of 14. She was a teenager living on her own and attracted by the thrills of risky behavior. Within a short period of time, Nelson was committing criminal acts to support her growing dependency on intoxicants.
By the time that she was 18, Nelson weighed only 89 pounds and was hospitalized four times when her immune system shut down from starvation. She has been on probation continuously for one infraction or another since the age of 15.
In 2004, Nelson encountered Hood River’s law enforcement officials after being caught with stolen goods. She had racked up seven felony convictions by that time and was looking at serious time for burglary and an accumulation of probation violations. So, when she was given the opportunity to turn her life around by entering drug court, Ayla jumped at the opportunity.
She knew that the rules of drug court would be tough — but so was living outside of mainstream society.
“Anyone who gets into this program is facing time so it’s like a last chance call,” she said. “I didn’t know anything different and all I wanted was help. And here were people who wanted to help me.”
Nelson submitted to having every aspect of her life — from where she lived to who she socialized with — subject to approval. But she hadn’t planned on coming to regard the professionals that made up the drug court team as a second family. As the months rolled by, she assigned the paternal role to District Attorney John Sewell, whose stern but kindly advice she always tried to follow. Probation Officer Susie Strom-Peebles and Pamela Newman, drug court coordinator, became the maternal figures that she came to trust with confidences during daily check-in calls.
Nelson found Judge Paul Crowley to be a stern but fair disciplinarian. The remaining team members she came to view as cheerleaders who were quick with applause as she met milestones — or an encouraging word if she didn’t.
“I guess I just knew it was going to be a process. So, whatever happened, as long as I was open, honest and willing, it was going to be okay,” said Nelson. “I needed the accountability of drug court to learn how to be responsible and organized.”
The drug court officials also include: Jack Morris, defense attorney; Donita Huskey-Wilson, director of the Community Justice Department; Fernando Figueroa and Kathy Prouty, representing the Department of Human Service; Chuck Wall, trial court administrator; Pepe Quintanila and Angela Brooks, from the Mid-Columbia Center for Living; and, Martha Yanez, court interpreter.
“There’s pressure but there’s also an amazing amount of support and that’s the key. It’s real support, they really care,” said Ayla. “I think that I could call any of them at any time in my life and they would help me if they could.”
After being featured in a Hood River News article introducing drug court last spring, Nelson also gained an “awesome” amount of community support.
“No one’s been pointing fingers and saying, ‘oh you come from that kind of a life.’ It’s just been completely positive,” said Nelson.
Although she had a boyfriend at the time she entered drug court, Ayla decided that relationship was unhealthy and broke it off. Since then she had concentrated her efforts on attending sobriety support sessions and getting individual counseling to learn about her “triggers” and how to avoid setbacks.
“I’m broken right now and I would never want to give someone a broken present. I would love to have a great relationship some day when I’m whole,” said Nelson.
The concept behind drug court is to draw on a pool of expertise in order to stop the cycle of addiction. The belief is that taxpayer dollars will ultimately be saved from repeat jail and court expenses. And, in many cases, the family cycle of addiction and criminal behavior will be broken.
No one gets into drug court unless Sewell makes the determination that he/she poses no threat to the community if not incarcerated.
“The formula is simple; accountability, honestly and quick reinforcement,” said Crowley. “In drug court we are asking people to make about as great a life change as humanly possible.”
To date, 12 people have applied for the program that began in 2005 and is funded primarily by private donations. One of the potential clients was immediately declined, three ended up being terminated for infractions and one transferred to another county. Another subject is teetering on the brink of being ousted and six people are currently going through the arduous rehabilitation process.
“I believe the most important trait for a person to be successful in drug court is a positive attitude — positive in their success and positive that they can do it,” said Newman.
She, Crowley and the rest of the team are excited about Thursday’s graduation. They believe that Nelson has beaten the odds and now has the tools to make better choices for a quality life.
“It was clear this was a special person who was polite and considerate; who was running for her life,” said Crowley, “and just repeatedly sticking her in jail wasn’t solving the problem.”
“I think everybody in drug court has watched Ayla grow as a person and not only mature but develop an awareness about what caused her to use in the first place,” said Sewell. “I really feel that she can make it and that she’s going to be a productive member of society.”
“I’m proud of her. She’s done a good job and worked really hard,” said Morris. “Drug court, in my view, works the way that all courts should; it helps people instead of just hammering them.”