Restored: Award recipients tell stories of desperation, redemption

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Last Thursday, as Suzanne Okun watched with pride as three graduates of the Oakland County drug court program each received a $1,000 scholarship award, she was left wondering about “what might have been.”

The scholarship awards, while helping the recipients forge new paths in life, are the regrettable byproduct of a life cut tragically short—in this case Okun’s 20-year-old son, Joshua, who died in late 2008 of a drug overdose.

Yet, despite the personal heartbreak she has suffered over the loss of her only child, Okun stood before a gathering of drug court supporters September 23 in the courtroom of Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Wendy Potts with a positive outlook in mind, praising the work of the RESTORE Foundation. 

It is through RESTORE, a nonprofit organization dedicated to privately funding the Oakland County Drug Treatment Courts, that the scholarships were established this year by Michigan-based Shore Mortgage. The scholarships are available to drug court graduates who “continue to bear evidence of sobriety” and are pursuing college or vocational training, according to Pamela Davis, manager of Court Services for the Oakland Circuit Court.

“I sometimes wonder if we had found the RESTORE Foundation earlier, would Josh’s story have been different,” Okun said during the scholarship presentation ceremony last week.

“And while no one can rewrite the past, RESTORE helps people take control of their future and I am proud to be a part of making that happen,” Okun said, noting that “we believe the Foundation will help people in the same situation that Josh, unfortunately, found himself in.”

As a consultant to Shore Mortgage, Okun said the company’s history of “benevolence” will help keep “dreams alive” for scholarship recipients and their loved ones. In particular, the first three winners of the Joshua Charles Short Drug Court Scholarships expressed their gratitude for the opportunity at redemption.

Ashley, one of the scholarship recipients, was admitted to the Juvenile Drug Court program in 2008 at the age of 16. Her battle with substance abuse began at age 12 and within two years she was addicted to heroin.

“Enrolling in the drug court was the last thing I wanted to do,” she told those gathered for the awards ceremony. “I wanted to stop it before I started it. Now, after successfully completing the program, I leave with the tools I will need to be a success.”

Ashley recently completed her first semester of college with a 3.0 grade point average.  She is working two jobs and hopes to pursue a career as a youth counselor.

“I hold great expectations that our drug courts will continue to make miracles,” she said, noting that officials “saw potential that I didn’t see” when she began the program. “I have been told since my end in drug court that I am headed for success. With the financial help of this scholarship, my path to success will be a lot easier.”

Brooklyn, who now lives in California with her 2-year-old daughter, also was among the scholarship recipients last Thursday. Her mother accepted the scholarship on her behalf, noting that the drug court program paid a double dividend for them.

“My mother hid the fact that we were both using and damaging each other’s recovery, and once we were both to the point where we realized if we didn’t do it together none of us were going to make it, we became more open minded and sober,” Brooklyn said in a written statement. “I do believe that drug court saved our lives.”

A medical billing analyst, Brooklyn is a full time student in addition to her parenting responsibilities. Her mother, fighting back tears last Thursday, said, “I’m now planning for a graduation instead of a funeral.”

The third scholarship recipient, 37-year-old Gregory, has served as one of the foremost advocates for the drug court program since graduating. His battle with alcohol began at age 16 and after repeated arrests for drunken-driving, he finally acknowledged his need to seek help while behind bars at the Oakland County Jail.

“I’m not looking over my shoulder anymore,” he said of his new lease on life. “I owe everybody involved with the drug court program. I owe my life to the program. When I open my mail, I’m not looking at subpoenas and arrest warrants. I have a whole new life,” he added, noting that it includes a wife, two daughters, a job, and a home.

For Okun, their stories were further evidence of the need for the drug court program in Oakland County.

“My son, Joshua, and I had high hopes for his future and though he died before those hopes and dreams were realized, I look to each of you to fulfill your dreams in a way that is positive and successful,” Okun told the honorees last Thursday. “From a selfish point of view, these scholarships are a way to keep Joshua’s memory alive. This is something every mother wants for her children. And if I can do that and at the same time be able to assist you in moving your lives forward by investing in your education, that is its own reward.”

Founded in 2008, the RESTORE Foundation is “dedicated to restoring hope and dignity by helping individuals overcome substance abuse.” The aims of the program, according to Judge Potts, are to reduce recidivism rates, decrease substance abuse in the community, and to prevent jail overcrowding. Program officials recently were informed that state grant funding will be cut from $64,000 this year to $20,000 in the upcoming fiscal year, Judge Potts indicated, making the need for private funding support even more vital in the future.

“Our work is just beginning with RESTORE, and we and our generous supporters are committed to the long-term success of the drug court programs,” she said.

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