POLK COUNTY – Twenty-two area graduates celebrated life during the 20th Annual Polk County Problem Solving Court Graduation Ceremony May 9.
Problem Solving Court is a court-supervised, comprehensive addiction treatment program for nonviolent defendants, according to the court website. Defendants have regular court appearances in front of a judge and are offered treatment if they agree to drug testing, counseling and regular attendance at support group meetings.
It’s one of many diversion programs that exist in Polk County court system.
More than a dozen area judges, State Attorney Brian Haas, County Commissioner Rick Wilson and many other supporters packed inside the Oliver L. Green Courtroom on the first floor near the main entrance to witness Judge Green talk about the creation of drug court more than 30 years ago.
John Quirk III, a veteran mentor volunteer for the program for the past three years, was also invited to speak to the graduates.
“Judge Green helped save my life,” Quirk said.
After serving his country on the USS Forrestal during Operation Dessert Storm, Quirk was discharged in 1993 and, in his telling, “started making bad choices” with drugs.
“I was facing 20 years in prison,” Quirk said.
Quirk said 24 years ago he had first appearance hearing with Green, and soon after, drug court staff visited him in jail and offered him an opportunity to enter a diversion program. At age 25, the court asked his parents whether they’d allow their son to move in and monitor his behavior.
After completing probation and graduating from drug court in 1997, Quirk started working at a shelter and has since worked with veterans for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Quirk said he has been sober since Jan. 13, 1995.
“I was a monster,” Quirk said. “The drug court program turned my life around and saved me.”
A woman identified as “Rebecca” graduated from Problem Solving Court more recently and she spoke about the challenges of accountability during her two and a half years of recovery.
“I’m so happy now,” Rebecca told those who graduated Thursday. “My washing machine just broke but I have the money to buy one now. We couldn’t say that two years ago. You have a second chance in life, take it.”
Presiding Judge Susan L. Barber shared a personal story about her father, former Judge Jesse Clay Barber Jr. Barber said she has a better understanding of how combat experience can lead to lifestyle changes that cause some veterans to get into legal trouble. Barber said her father was a World War II fighter pilot who didn’t talk about the war until two decades after returning home to Lake Wales.
“He was changed.” Judge Barber said. “After he returned home he was lost... but the point is it did happen. He did finish school, he did have a family, he did use his great wisdom, his talent, his experience to serve this community as a judge. He would say don’t ever, ever, ever give up because it is never too late to be what you might have been.