A different energy filled the Smyth County courtroom Friday as two young men sat before Circuit Court Judge Deanis Simmons for a final time.
The usual apprehension found at court proceedings was replaced with air of excitement and accomplishment. More than 100 people crowded into the courtroom to watch as Donnie Crisp and Anthony Collins became the Smyth County Recovery Court’s first graduates.
“This is a monumental day for these two individuals,” Simmons said. “I’m delighted to be here. I have watched these two young men with pride and joy as they have overcome hurdles, had some struggles, but also had some joyous, joyous occasions.”
Friday marked the two men’s completion of the Recovery Court program, an intensive program meant to help drug addicts overcome their addictions and lead productive lives.
Collins and Crisp, both of Saltville, set out with the program in 2018 as an alternative to jail sentences. As part of their rigorous treatment in the program, the two were required to attend 12 to 15 hours of substance abuse counseling per week, participate in at least two weekly community support groups and put in weekly community service hours. On top of that, they were given drug screens quite frequently—three to five times per week in the beginning—to ensure they were making progress.
As their time in the program came to a close on Friday, the two men and their family members gave testimony to their recovery.
“This program can work,” Collins’ mother, Melissa Collins, told the crowd. “I want you to know that it works. It saved my son’s life and it saved our family from having to tell him goodbye either in death or in jail.”
She recalled constantly worrying about her son during his active addiction.
Then his legal troubles began.
In December 2017, she was almost certain her son would spend Christmas in a jail cell, leaving her young grandson to celebrate without his father.
Collins, 33, said he first got hooked on prescription pain pills back in 2007 after he had surgery. His pain pill addiction eventually snowballed to heavy methamphetamine use.
Already on probation in 2017, Collins said he knew he only had to stay clean for three days to pass a drug screen. But his addiction eventually wouldn’t even allow him to do that and he found himself back in front of a judge.
He was scheduled to go to court Dec. 14 of that year, but a mix up with the hearing time allowed his lawyer to postpone until February 2018, just a few weeks after the Recovery Court would launch.
Crisp, 28, told the crowd he’d spent 14 years in active addiction.
His drug use began to make damaging impacts on his life early on. He recalled being expelled from high school as a sophomore because he’d used drugs.
Sometime after high school, he started working at Utility Trailer. The demands of the job were high, he said, so when a coworker offered him some meth, he took it.
“I thought, ‘Oh, this is exactly what I need,’” he said.
Methamphetamines are frequently used in manufacturing settings, where the physical labor can often be intense.
“But then I got to using more drugs than I was making money,” Crisp said.
Crisp’s sister, Danielle Crisp, talked about her admiration for her brother.
“Since I can remember, I’ve always looked up to Donnie.”
His strong willpower allowed him to do almost anything he set his mind to, she said.
“Then he started hanging out with the wrong crowd and used his willpower for the wrong reasons.”
That strong willpower helped her brother get clean when the first of his three children was born.
He thought he’d beaten his addiction, she said, which led him to believe he could hang around his old friends without relapsing.
That, of course, was not the case, and years later, Crisp found himself in a jail cell looking at as many as three years to pull.
He spent four months at the regional jail in Abingdon before he was accepted into the Recovery Court program.
“At the time, I didn’t realize getting arrested was the best thing that could happen to him,” Danielle Crisp said.
Donnie Crisp later echoed his sister’s sentiments. “I went to jail and it really saved my life.”
Among those in the large crowd to help celebrate Crisp and Collins’ success were Virginia delegates Jeff Campbell and Todd Pillion, and representatives from U.S. senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner’s offices. Crisp and Collins were both awarded certificates of recognition and letters of congratulations from Warner and Kaine.
Campbell, also a Saltville native, said he’d known both men since they were young and expressed pride in their successes in recovery.
“Graduations are always a reason to celebrate, but no more so than today,” he said.
He and Pillion both noted the impact that drug court programs have on their communities and the crucial role of the government to help fund them.
“These programs ensure that young men like Donnie and Anthony don’t get lost in the system,” Campbell said.
Pillion noted that while addiction is prevalent in Southwest Virginia, so is the region’s conviction to overcome it.
“We see in the news that Southwest Virginia leads in addiction and [overdose] deaths,” Pillion said. “But we’re also leading the way in making a change and that’s right here, in this drug court. That’s you two.”
Commonwealth’s Attorney Roy Evans, who helped spearhead the program, also talked about the prevalence of drug addiction in the community. Prosecuting drug cases, at times, can seem daunting, he said. Once one drug dealer is put away, he said, another steps up to takes his place to fuel the drug epidemic.
“Sometimes, it can feel like we’re bailing water out of the ocean,” he said.
That prevalence makes the community’s success stories exceptionally meaningful.
“This is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done,” Evans said.
Simmons, whose support and leadership was central to the development of the program, pointed out that the success of the program and its participants extends beyond the individual.
“What you’re seeing today is a ripple effect,” she said, pointing out the family members that flanked the two graduates sitting before her. “Today is not only a joyous occasion for these individuals, but a joyous day for their families.”
Probation Officer Mark Moss later added, “They’re not just two good graduates, but two good fathers and two good members of the community.”
Though Crisp and Collins have successfully completed the program, it doesn’t look like they’re finished with it all together.
During the ceremony Recovery Court Coordinator Michelle Ward said the two men had agreed to serve as mentors to other program participants.
Collins credited the support he found from the program and from his family for his success. He plans to pay it forward — something he learned about in the Recovery Court program — by going on to become a certified peer support specialist to further help end the cycle of addiction.
“I never thought I’d be this long clean,” he said. “This is the longest my son has ever seen me clean since he was born. Without support, it would be impossible to be where I am today.”
The Smyth County Recovery Court currently has 18 participants at various phases in the program.