The renowned group, “Women in Recovery” (WIR) on Wednesday held a graduation ceremony in the Blue Room of the Oklahoma state Capitol. Twelve women who had completed the rigorous program of accountability and therapy, offered in return for an alternative to imprisonment, earned “degrees” to document completion of the WIR program.
Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb and Speaker of the House Kris Steele renewed their passionate support for WIR in an hour-long event that was part pep rally, part spiritual witness, and part emotional shedding of past ways of living and embracing of new directions.
Noting Steele’s commitment to WIR, Lamb remarked his friend had become “a paradigm of leadership on this issue, leading the charge and carrying the banner.” He joshed that WIR events often become “a Kris Steele rally.” Later, however, after a stirring ovation for WIR director Mimi Tarrasch, Lamb commented on the depth of support she obviously had in the room, and said “Mimi, if you consider running for public office, I want to work with you.”
In his remarks, Speaker Steele said that his first visit to WIR came “on November 11, 2009, at 4 o’clock p.m. That experience changed my life.” Steele said, “My faith causes me to believe that God has a plan for each and every one of us, and that’s true for me, and for everyone of you.”
In handling adversity, he said, “we choose to become better, or bitter.” He hailed the 12 graduates, saying, “Today, I’m in the presence of people who have experienced a warrior mentality.” He said in life every person must “overcome your obstacles, and outlive your adversity. It is in the struggle that we gain strength.”
Speaking directly to the women graduates, Steele said, “your success validates what we’re trying to do at the state Capitol here in Oklahoma City. Thank you for your willingness to change, and to make a difference.”
Attending the Blue Room ceremony was Michael Carnuccio, President of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and a conservative leader who has signed the Right on Crime statement of principles. Regarding the graduation today, Carnuccio sent this statement to CapitolBeatOK:
“Today is an important day in Oklahoma, as we saw women transform their lives while the state begins transforming it’s approach to criminal justice. Through the Women in Recovery program, our state has proven that a new approach to criminal justice is both effective and necessary for public safety. We applaud the leadership of Speaker Kris Steele, Governor Mary Fallin and Lt. Governor Lamb on this issue.”
Carnuccio and Speaker Steele joined Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation to unveil the “Right on Crime” initiative last week.
Attending today’s Blue Room event were a bipartisan range of legislators, including Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman of Sapulpa, Don Barrington of Lawton, and former Sen. James Williamson of Tulsa.
Steele’s House colleagues supporting the graduates included Speaker Pro Tem Jeff Hickman of Dacoma and Republican Reps. Lisa Billy of Lindsay, Glen Mulready of Tulsa, Pat Ownbey of Ardmore, Pam Peterson of Tulsa, and Democratic Reps. Richard Morrissette of Oklahoma City, Jeannie. McDaniel of Tulsa and Emily Virgin of Norman.
Also attending were Corrections Department officials and Secretary of Health and Human Services Terry Cline.
Lt. Gov. Lamb had expressed Gov. Mary Fallin’s regrets at missing the graduation rites due to a Cabinet meeting, but the chief executive rushed into the room just the formal event ended, then stayed to greet every graduate and pose for both group and individual photographs.
Commenting during today’s ceremony on the range of legislators who came to support the women, the lieutenant governor said, “I’ve never seen this many legislators supporting an event like this, in the Blue Room.”
Two women speaking at the ceremony needed a few moments, before delivering their remarks, to adjust to a bright shaft of light coming through a window to their left and the audience’s right. The beam of light lingered for several minutes on two of the feminine speakers before the sun passed on its course.
Tulsa’s Family & Children’s Services and the George Kaiser Family Foundation sponsored the event for Women in Recovery, which is described as “an alternative to incarceration program for nonviolent female offenders with alcohol and drug addictions in Tulsa County.” The Kaiser Foundation funds the program.
“Women in Recovery gave me a chance to change my life for the better,” said Andrea Baker, a WIR graduate. “I have plans and dreams for the future that would not have been possible without the help of Women in Recovery.”
In her emotional presentation, Baker, who is 38, said that before coming to WIR, “The only thing I every did right was have my daughter, Jessica.” Baker expressed sadness for years in which she had “a meth addiction, when I neglected my family and my responsibilities.” She never dreamed, when facing charges for manufacturing of meth, she had come to “a blessing in disguise.”
Baker believes the combination of firm structure and therapy in the WIR program “was exactly what I needed.” Today, she has developed “trusting relationships, and friendships that matter.” She was able to attend her daughter’s wedding “fully present, supportive, and sober.” Now she knows, Baker said, “there is life after addiction.”
Baker’s dream now is to become a therapist. She told the rapt audience, “I thank my God for this program, and my freedom, every day.” On April 8, she announced, “I will be two years sober.”
Mary Hall, another graduate, described her time at WIR as “truly a blessing to me.” Before the program, she was ashamed of times when she “put my addiction before my children.” WIR, she said, made her better with therapy and through meeting her medical needs. She has now put aside fear, anger, abuse, shame, guilt and other negative factors.
Hall said that today, “I have hope, not regret.” WIR, she said as her voice wavered, “made me closer to God. I have a new lease on life, and I will take advantage of it.
Today’s graduation often packed the same emotional clout exhibited at the early March seminar on effective criminal justice strategies, when three other women shared stirring testimonials about their lives before and after entering Women in Recovery.
Today’s graduates ranged, officials said, “from a mother of three and war veteran to a woman in her early 20s. The program includes one year of intensive treatment and services, allowing participants to successfully return to their families and communities. In order to qualify, the women must be 18 years of age or older, involved in the criminal justice system and of imminent risk of incarceration, ineligible for other diversion services or courts, and must have a history of substance abuse. Women with children have a high priority for program admission.
“To graduate, all participants must be drug/alcohol free, crime free, employed, actively participating in community recovery support, engaged in reunification plans with their children and meeting all legal and court requirements. WIR includes an aftercare program and two-year follow up evaluation provided by the University of Tulsa.”
Mimi Tarrasch, director of WIR, delivered a graduation speech detailing the program. That address was posted Wednesday morning on CapitolBeatOK .
In a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK after today’s event, Tarrach reflected, “When they entered this program, these women were lost and broken. Through their hard work and determination, they were able to overcome addictions, reconnect with their families and become productive, tax-paying members of society.”
In her statement, Amy Santee of the Kaiser Foundation said, “We are so proud of these graduates and their commitment to improve their lives and the lives of their children. The Foundation recognizes the importance of breaking the cycle of intergenerational incarceration in Oklahoma, and this program gives participants the resources they need to become self-sufficient. The success of this program showcases the fact that there are alternatives to incarceration that hold offenders accountable, improve public safety and reduce corrections costs.”
During her brief comments at the graduation ceremony, Santee praised the women because, she said, “it takes courage to share these stories and to confront their fears.” She affirmed the women for seeking “a better future not only for themselves but also for their children.”
Santee and Tarrasch continued, as they had at earlier events, advocating to make WIR a model for other programs targeting women more in need of treatment than imprisonment.
Near the end of the graduation ceremony, Lamb told the women he knew their families and the WIR program staff “are counting on you. I want you to know the state of Oklahoma is also counting on you.” Lamb commented on what he called “the humble confidence I have seen from each one of you. If we could get a little bit more of that in this building, just think what we could accomplish.”
Detailed explanations about the sponsors of today’s graduation were provided to CapitolBeatOK, and are posted in their entirety below:
About Women in Recovery: Women in Recovery (WIR) is an alternative to incarceration for nonviolent female offenders, that combines strict supervision with a comprehensive day treatment program. Services include comprehensive case management, supervised visitation with children, job search assistance, substance abuse treatment, employment and vocational training, housing placement, medical services, counseling and life skills training and community integration. For more information, call (918) 560-1142.
About Family & Children’s Services: Family & Children’s Services (F&CS), a private not-for-profit behavioral health organization, provides counseling services and mental health and substance abuse treatment for adults and children in Northeast Oklahoma who may be in crisis, adjusting to difficult life situations, traumatized or suffering from mental illness or addiction. The F&CS network, founded more than 85 years ago, includes 500 employees, 11 facilities and more than 50 school and community partner locations throughout the Tulsa metro area. Through its numerous programs, F&CS serves one in six Tulsans every year. For more information, visit www.fcsok.org.
About George Kaiser Family Foundation: George Kaiser Family Foundation is a charitable organization dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty through investments in early childhood education, community health, social services and civic enhancement. Based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, GKFF works primarily on initiatives developed in collaboration with Tulsa-based direct service organizations. For more information about George Kaiser Family Foundation, visit www.gkff.org.