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For 7 grads, tears, hugs and a new life


Standing at a lectern washed in television lights, Denise Whitfield silently wiped her tears. On her "graduation" yesterday from the city's drug court, her lives passed before her eyes.

There was the old life of heroin and cocaine, the lost job, the child abandonment charge and the eviction. And, now, there was the hope of a new, drug-free life.

"It's all right," came an encouraging voice from the audience of about 100. And then applause. Denise Whitfield still hadn't said a word.

Later, she would explain why she'd been left speechless for close to a minute. "It was joy," she said. "Inner joy."

At the year-old Baltimore City Drug Treatment Court's first graduation ceremony, the judges and the bureaucrats let the seven graduates do most of the talking.

The reformed addicts included a man addicted to heroin while teaching in a city school, and another whose recovery was tested by a deadly lightning bolt that killed his brother.

The nuts and bolts of the program -- claimed savings of about $2 million in prison costs, but growing pains that have left the program operating at barely a third of its capacity -- were pushed to the background.

The ceremony in the lobby of the Edward F. Borgerding District Court Building was at times like a religious service. There were many thanks to God. Many hugs and tears.

As the ceremony began, Baltimore District Judge Jamey H. Weitzman said, "Our graduates, by the way, have not always looked this good. In fact some of them were pretty rough around the edges."

And then they told their stories:

* John M. Paige said he battled heroin and cocaine for more than 25 years -- including the past 21 years as a teacher.

When he was arrested buying crack in West Baltimore, a former student was in the police raiding party. Mr. Paige's job at Mt. Royal Elementary/Middle School was in jeopardy, but he said school administrators have supported his recovery.

"I have pledged the rest of my life to helping young individuals see there is a better way other than drugs," Mr. Paige, 47, said.

* David Steele, 37, said he "used to run with" his younger brother during a decade of drug abuse.

As Mr. Steele began to recover under the drug court program, he wanted to encourage his brother, Eugene Steele, to get treatment. But on the day before they were to meet, Eugene Steele was struck by lightning and killed in Cherry Hill. It was Eugene's 36th birthday.

"If that doesn't throw a person into relapse, nothing will," Judge Weitzman said.

"Thinking about him all the time just helps me to go on," Mr. Steele said.

* David Berry Jr., homeless when he entered the drug court program, said he sang before a world convention of Narcotics Anonymous in September and then signed a contract to record two songs. Mr. Berry, 35, also works two jobs.

Two of his bosses were at yesterday's ceremony.

"Dave came to us about six months ago wanting a chance. We gave it to him," said Colleen Hylton, vice president for operations at Baltimore Freeport Centre, a food distribution company. "He's done a tremendous job."

* Sheila J. Pendleton, 37, spent half her salary on drugs during a 15-year addiction. She admits being less than happy with the program when she first entered it.

"I was in big denial. I did give everybody a hard way to go."

* William Hall, 36, was left homeless after 15 years of heroin, cocaine and alcohol abuse. "I used drugs like it was candy. I used to drink alcohol like it was water," he said.

* Needra Bland, 34, whose battles with cocaine and heroin were chronicled in The Sun earlier this month, received a standing ovation when she spoke.

"Just don't give up," she said, "It's worth the fight."

After the ceremony, Ms. Whitfield recounted the events that brought her to drug court. She talked of a $300-a-day drug habit that spun further out of control after her fiance was killed in an auto accident.

She said she received $17,000 from his life insurance policy, and blew it within three months on crack cocaine.

Her 22-year-old niece turned her in, and she was charged with abandoning her 6-year-old daughter. She lost her job with the city. She tried to kill herself.

Now the 37-year-old O'Donnell Heights woman sees a better future. As for the program and her graduation, she says it's as though someone said, "We've guided you so far, but now you have to walk on your own."

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