SOUTH BEND — With friends and family there to cheer them on, two 20-somethings celebrated the beginning of a new journey together; not in marriage, but in sobriety.

On Thursday, May 28, the Pacific County Felony Drug Court met for a graduation celebration for the first time since the covid-19 pandemic halted group gatherings. Pacific County Superior Court Judge Donald Richter began holding drug court through Zoom on April 17.

The first to graduate was 20-year-old Dylan Lorton. Lorton was 16 months sober at his ceremony and his family crowded around him when the ceremony was through to congratulate him. Graduating felt good, he said.

The second graduate was Lorton’s girlfriend, bubbly 24-year-old Makenzie Fuller. Fuller was an official graduate of the program in March but her ceremony was canceled due to the covid-19 pandemic.

As jail liaison for the county’s Justice Mental Health Collaboration Program, Judd Comer was one of the first people to evaluate whether Fuller would be a good candidate for drug court. After he congratulated Fuller on her accomplishment, she shared her own memory of him from when she was in jail.

“You told me this day was going to come and I didn’t believe you, I thought you were full of crap,” Fuller said.

Fuller thanked him for his support.

Dwindling participants

Drug Court Coordinator Tessa Clements grew choked up at seeing how many people came to the ceremony. As a county employee, Clements’ job changed when the Emergency Operation Center was opened. She took care of logistics for things such as ordering personal protective equipment and setting up mobile testing sites. While she still maintained contact with the members of her drug court, it was more reactive than proactive check ins.

Graduating out Fuller and Lorton meant reducing the total drug court participants to five or six people. Five graduated the court in the last three months, and fewer are enrolling as law enforcement officers try to reduce the jail population. Those in jail often have more serious charges, which make it difficult to get them approved for the diversion program. With few people coming into the court, Clements said she was worried the people who do join will miss out on the mentorship the more senior participants offer.

“The drug court staff isn’t the heart of this program,” Clements said. “The heart of this program is the people in it.”

But seeing who came out to support Fuller and Lorton was inspiring, Clements said. Previous drug court graduates came to see the ceremony. Some brought their families. More than one person joked it did look like a wedding, with Fuller in a white summer dress and kids running around in the grass.

Dating within drug court isn’t encouraged, Clements said. But the two began seeing each other about nine months ago, and it seemed to be healthy for both.

“Being with Dylan keeps me grounded,” Fuller said.

Fuller’s mom, Mitzi Fuller, said what the program did for her daughter humbled her.

“They helped her make a change, something we weren’t able to do,” Mitzi Fuller said.

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