Emerging from despair, quartet of women graduate into productive citizenship

OKLAHOMA CITY – DeChelle Black was one of the four graduates at last week’s first-ever public ceremony for “ReMerge” – a program patterned on the acclaimed Women in Recovery (WIR) of Tulsa.
The system provides an alternative to incarceration for women encountering the criminal justice system. WIR is a leading model for successful programs providing ways forward for women in trouble.
Black was on her way to prison and six months pregnant when she learned of ReMerge. Given the opportunity to “divert” into the strenuous program stressing personal accountability, behavioral responsibility and reformed habits of living, Black took a chance on the program, and on herself.
Now, she has “been sober for over 14 months. I have completed the …  program for job training. I have been certified for forklift and OSHA. I have my driver’s license and my own car. I work full time and have an apartment. … I pay all of my own bills. The biggest change is having my family in my life.”
Yvonne Estrada came to ReMerge after a jail stint. She knew she needed “boundaries” and “better control over my decisions.” She had blamed “the system” after imprisonment and failed rehabilitation.
“I had a spiritual awakening and a better way of seeing and understanding that the system doesn’t have anything to do with my choices. It was me. That’s when I learned: acceptance, accountability, personal awareness and responsibility,” Estrada said about ReMerge.
Now, “I have my daily action plan and safety plan that I follow faithfully with the help of my sponsor.” Estrada has a job, and hopes to work permanently with recovery groups like NorthCare or ReMerge.
Tricia Everest, a prominent civic leader in the capital city, served as M.C. for the graduation program, which was held at the Oklahoma History Center near the state Capitol. Everest praised the “female diversion program” designed to make productive citizens of pregnant women and mothers otherwise facing incarceration.
Traci Woodland, director of ReMerge, gave a detailed description of the program, and an explanation of pragmatic ways it triggers a combination of accountability and responsibility from the participating women. Woodland described the mix of treatment and behavioral programs that guide women who often struggle with mental health or abuse issues to remake their lives.
The keynote speaker — former Speaker of the House Kris Steele, R-Shawnee — encouraged the four graduates to take what they have learned as a basis to serve others, as they have been served.
He said, “I hope today you see yourselves as bright, talented, intelligent women. … Make sure you listen to the right voices. Listen to voices that are positive and lead you in the right direction.”
Steele asked the women to consider their time in ReMerge a “major intersection” in their lives. He recalled simple rules of safety, which many of us learn as children, rules for both pedestrians and drivers: “Stop. Look. Listen.” Going forward, he encouraged the graduates often to pause, reevaluate, consider and correct, and “recognize what is truly important in life.”
He continued, “When life gets busy or complicated, I encourage you to slow down, think, and consider where you have been and where you are headed.  … Look and learn to see what is truly happening around you. I am guessing you are seeing things a little differently now, and I suspect your perspective in life has changed. You can now see the extraordinary beauty in even the most common things. There is no doubt you now see yourself, your children, and others differently.” 
He concluded by encouraging them to “Go into the world ready to serve, heal and help others. Go into the world destined to be an example of redemption. Go into the world determined to reach your God-given potential. Know, as you go, we will be cheering you on every step of the way.”
The initial graduate speaker at the event was graduate Lacey Copenhaver, who described how the program gave her practical “tools and knowledge” needed to move in a positive direction as a mother and a taxpaying citizen.
Diane Billings, the fourth graduate to address the crowd, gave one of the shortest talks. She narrated a unique personal history nonetheless evocative of comments heard at past graduations for Women In Recovery.
With five children and two divorces in her past, Billings recalled she “was broken, doing drugs after an abusive childhood.”
She “wanted with all my heart to give my kids the childhood I never had. I loved my children but had no self-esteem, no confidence in myself.” Over a year and a half at ReMerge, she learned, “I am important. I learned communication with my doctors, and how to have positive relationships with those I love.”
Gesturing at the crowd, Billings concluded, “I didn’t think I mattered. Now I know I do. I owe that to you people.

You may contact Patrick B. McGuigan at Patrick@capitolbeatok.com and follow us on Twitter: @capitolbeatok.