Graduation takes on special meaning for those who overcame addiction

Graduation season is in full swing across Metro Detroit with commencement ceremonies going on at schools across the region.

On Thursday, there was a different kind of graduation ceremony in downtown Detroit and it took on a special meaning for the graduates and their families.

There were traditional mortarboards, certificates and pictures taken. The mood was high at the Horatio Williams Foundation as graduates celebrated their achievements: Overcoming drug and alcohol addiction which resulted in them ending up in the criminal justice system. 

Judge Shannon A. Holmes (left) gets an emotional hug from graduate Joshua Howell during the 36th District Court Speciality Court 22nd Graduation Ceremony.

Two dozen graduates of the 36th District Court's specialty treatment courts received diplomas and praises for their accomplishments of overcoming their addiction and embarking on new lives.

Nicole Miller, a Taylor resident, was one of the enthusiastic new grads.

"I plan to live a drug-free life," said the 36-year-old beaming mom-to-be. "I learned accountability in the (court) program."

Miller said her road to heroin use started 12 years ago when her mother died. She said she racked up more than a dozen arrest warrants stemming from her drug use.

Now with a baby on the way and a planned September wedding to her fiancée, LaTonya Matthews, Miller is happy to be starting a new life that she credits drug court for helping to create.

"She's the strongest woman I know," said Matthews Thursday.

Judges, Detroit Police Chief James White and Wayne County Sheriff Raphael Washington joined treatment coordinators, social workers and others in congratulating the graduates and their family members at the court's 22nd Graduation Ceremony.

Minister Darryl Woods speaks during the 36th District Court Speciality Court 22nd Graduation in Detroit on Thursday, May 19. 2022.

The court runs four specialty courts: Drug Treatment Court, Veterans Treatment Court, Street Outreach Court Detroit and Mental Health Court. All are diversionary programs where most graduates have their criminal charges dismissed when they successfully complete the program.

Judge Shannon Holmes oversees the specialty courts at what is considered one of the busiest courthouses in the nation.

"We are excited to celebrate you today," Holmes told the graduates.

In a lighthearted manner, she told the crowd of about 200 gathered at the ceremony about the resistance she gets from some of the program's participants.

"The struggle in the specialty courts is real," said Holmes Thursday. "We have lost four participants. Addiction is a nasty, nasty beast and everybody doesn't survive it."

Billie Jo Yahya, a 43-year-old mother of an adult son from Southgate, was to be among the graduates Thursday.

She died Saturday of an overdose related to her addiction, her sister, Tracey Myers said.

Myers picked up her certificate to a standing ovation and rousing applause.

"I'm incredibly proud of what she's accomplished," Meyers told The Detroit News Thursday. "She was very proud of that program. They had given her so much and made her feel she could (make it)."

"She was in recovery for 2½ years," Myers said. "She wanted to speak to others about their addiction and help others get clean."

Myers said in the past three weeks her sister had become fearful over whether she could make it by herself once the program ended.

A memorial service is scheduled for Friday.

Chief 36th District Court Judge William McConico told the graduates he was proud of their accomplishments.

"You did not take the easy route," said McConico. "Keep doing the hard things. Good luck."

McConico reminded the graduates that although many of them will struggle now that they don't have supervision through the program help will still be nearby.

"When you have struggles don't forget people care about you," said McConico. "We have resources."