Calvert County Circuit Court Judge Mark Chandlee called them “three people who are ready to move on.” The latest graduates of the county’s adult treatment court were collectively saluted Oct. 31 for making strides in their individual struggles to shed the stigma of drug and alcohol addiction.
Addressing a crowded courtroom during the brief ceremony, Chandlee praised the three graduates — Natalie Bongiorni, Alexander Caouette and Salvatore Gallodoro — for completing the difficult 18-month program.
Calvert established its adult treatment court in 2015 and in that time has graduated 72. Chandlee told The Calvert Recorder that the drug court graduations take place every four or five months. The class of three was the program’s smallest. They have had as many as 12 graduates at one time.
The adult treatment court program is coordinated by Tina Blackistone, and the participants are counseled by three case managers.
Chandlee said the program, which is mostly funded by the state’s specialty courts, also receives an allocation from the county commissioners to employ the case managers and purchase vehicles for transporting participants to drug programs. Some of the treatment programs are located as far away as New York, West Virginia and North Carolina.
“I hold them to 100%,” Chandlee said. To achieve that score, the participants must follow the list of rules, which include abstaining from alcohol, illegal drugs and certain medications. Participants also must attend all treatment court reviews, appointments with treatment providers, case managers and probation agents, avoid criminal activity and follow their outlined treatment plan.
The program is divided into four phases with requirements and criteria for advancement to the next phase. Among the criteria for advancement to graduation is “continued abstinence from drugs and alcohol for 180 days plus being actively employed or enrolled in school full time.
“My struggles have been pretty open,” Bongiorni told The Calvert Recorder.
She said there was drug addiction in the home she grew up in, and she was “smoking dope and drinking alcohol by the time she was in middle school.”
Bongiorni said she subsequently became a heroin addict, and her life spiraled out of control. She had been enrolled in many rehabilitation programs before adult treatment court.
“Drugs stole my life for many years,” said Bongiorni, who added that she got into drug court because “I didn’t have any options. I knew this was for me. It was either this or death. I was playing Russian roulette with my life.”
The mother of three also didn’t want to go back to jail. Having been ordered to be incarcerated by Chandlee at one point, Bongiorni knew the judge’s decision was for her own safety. “Incarceration is a wake-up call — something to make us open our eyes,” she said.
Bongiorni, who read aloud a letter her daughter wrote to the adult treatment court thanking them “for transforming her life,” now works on towers and also does roofing work.
“It’s my new high,” she declared.
Of her case manager, Danielle Banyasz, Bongiorni said “she has been amazing. I can talk to her, and I can be honest.”
During the ceremony, Chandlee also had considerable praise for Bongiorni’s fellow graduates.
He said Gallodoro is “super educated and super smart. He lost everything because of his addiction.”
Chandlee said Gallodoro enrolled in a program with the Salvation Army. After entering a sober living home and realizing he needed additional help, Gallodoro went back to The Salvation Army’s program and has remained sober.
Of Caouette, the judge said of his 18 months in the program, “he has been working the whole time. He respects the court.” Caouette has been in a sober home in Anne Arundel County since his enrollment in treatment court.
The keynote speaker for the graduation was Andrew Malone, the deputy executive director of Nick’s Place, a home in Prince George’s County for young men between the ages of 20 and 26 who are battling drug addiction and/or alcoholism.
“I’m Andrew, and I’m an addict,” Malone stated in his speech.
Of his struggle to beat his addiction, Malone told the gathering that he started out hoping to stay sober for 30 days.
“I just wanted to feel normal,” he said.
Malone’s journey to becoming clean and sober led him to several treatment centers.
He explained that when he entered Nick’s Place, he initially lapsed into the same routine of reticence. However, “they didn’t kick me out, and they gave me a second chance.”
Malone said he learned that being honest had its consequences but also had its rewards. He has been clean and sober for a dozen years.
Malone added that his work at Nick’s Place is as vital to him as it is to others. “I needed to make a transition to helping others,” he said. “What helps me stay clean is seeing people grow.”