Pews lined with family, friends, sponsors, and staff filled the church. Conversations echoed around the room, loved ones meeting for the first time.
As the time to begin drew near, Pomp and Circumstance erupted from the speakers, drawing all attention to the center. Graduates walked down the aisle while the crowd roared with support, their love and gratification almost palpable.
Settling down, everyone prepared for the real celebration to begin. A celebration of hope and life, honoring those who had lost everything, but worked to find their way back.
On Saturday, Santa Barbara Rescue Mission held their fall graduation ceremony, where 12 men and women received certificates of completion from a year-long residential and alcohol treatment program. Hundreds gathered at Calvary Baptist Church to honor the graduates after months of dedication.
“I’m sure some of your loved ones have been wondering what exactly you’ve been up to for this past year,” opened Kelly Goralski, Women’s Program Director at Rescue Mission. “And I can assure you we’ve kept them busy.”
Struggling with addiction, people come to Rescue Mission for a way out. In four different stages, residents engage in one-on-one counseling, work through childhood traumas and abusive relationships, attend daily bible studies, and participate in a variety of weekly psycho-educational groups.
Sponsors help the residents go through the default steps of recovery, attending a minimum of three outside meetings a week. After nine rigorous months of programs, residents enter the fourth and final stage, finding their way back into the community.
“It was all worth it,” said Jamie Blake, graduate from the Women’s Program. “Being away from my family was hard, but I figured it was one year to heal myself internally, so I could be there for a lifetime.”
During the ceremony, Ms. Blake shared her story with the crowd, choking up as she reflected on what brought her to Rescue Mission.
“I had to experience death to finally be awake to what life is really about,” she said. “I always chose lockup over a program, but I was ready to change everything.”
When she was four years old, Jamie Blake was taken from her mom. Struggling with addition, her father moved in and out of jail, while Ms. Blake lived in foster care for most of her childhood.
Ms. Blake overdosed for the first time in the sixth grade. Growing up, she struggled with addiction, toxic relationships, and abandonment. Then, when she was just 17, Ms. Blake had her first son, though parting with his father shortly after he was born.
In the years that followed, Ms. Blake went to jail, succumbed to addiction, and experienced loss again and again. After decades of hurt, Ms. Blake found herself at the edge of death. Losing all motor skills, becoming numb to the pain, Ms. Blake began to pray, and something changed – she found a purpose.
One year later, Ms. Blake stood in front of her family and friends sober and rehabilitated, excited for what lies ahead but not forgetting how far she’s come.
“I remember waking up freezing, crying because I was just so cold,” she said. “But given this opportunity, having a warm bed and just the little things, has been amazing. I can’t wait to start living.”
Others like Ms. Blake shared their stories throughout the celebration. Between prayers and song, each graduate got their chance to thank those who supported them every part of the way.
“Thank you to my family for showing up for me no matter what,” said one of the graduates. “While they’ve always showed up for me, today I’ve learned how to show up for myself.”
Every word spoken on stage was followed closely by applause, proving the ceremony was just as much for the graduates as it was for their supporters. People cheered from every inch of the room for not only their loved ones, but also those they didn’t even know.
With the path to rehabilitation hard and unending, moments like this are worth celebrating.
“She stuck with it, and I’m so proud of her,” said one graduate’s mother. “She had been in several programs prior, but this one was more serious, and her health was very much compromised. But now we’re starting to restore the family.”
After completing the program, graduates reconnect with their communities, going on to work fulltime or continuing their education. Some even find their way back to Rescue Mission, like Viola Silva.
Since graduating in 2018, Ms. Viola has taken a position as the Women’s Program night security, which requires her to sleep alongside the residents and make sure everything runs smoothly. For her, watching the ceremony reminded Ms. Viola how it felt to be on that stage.
“I did my speech for my class, and while I was really nervous, a girl told me afterwards how I changed her life,” said Ms. Viola. “That’s what this is for, you know. I’ve been in their shoes. They see me working there now and they think, ‘if she can do it, I can do it.’”
At the end of the ceremony, Ms. Viola and other staff members gathered to present the graduates. One by one, each of them received a certificate, marking their official completion of a year-long process.
“I see these graduations, but the hard work of these guys never ceases to impress me,” said L.B. Chandler, Director of the Men’s Program. “I see them when they walk through the doors and their lives are in shambles.”
“On a night like tonight, I get to see them when their lives are thriving,” he said. “They have jobs, they’re going to school, and most of all, their loved ones are here to support them again.”