Westmoreland drug court participants pitch in at animal shelter
There was no dog-walking or cat-petting. Instead, it was hours of moving heavy stones and working up a sweat for about 15 people who volunteered Sunday for a less desirable job at the Humane Society of Westmoreland County.
Not everyone had landscaping experience, but they did have one thing in common: They are all part of the county's drug court program.
“It's nice to give back,” said Kelly Carasella of New Stanton. “It's nice to have people you're around that aren't using and (who are) sober.”
About 12 program participants and a few county workers lugged 5 tons of donated stone into place on a hillside outside the cat facility, painted a porch, pulled weeds and washed puppies that had just been dropped off with their mother at the Hempfield shelter. It was an optional volunteer day for program participants, but facilitators said they hope to make it an annual event.
“It looks a lot better than it did,” shelter director Kathy Burkley said. “That was hard work.”
The county's drug court began in September 2015 as an alternative system for up to 50 participants who must complete rigorous treatment and rehabilitative options. In return, their criminal cases could be resolved with no jail time and, in some instances, with charges dismissed altogether. The strict program lasts a minimum of 18 months.
Three participants are set to be the first graduating class on June 15. There currently are 46 participants in drug court and a waiting list of 16 more.
Chris Andring of New Kensington will be among those graduates — the day after he takes a test to become a certified recovery specialist. He coordinated Sunday's volunteer event.
“It puts structure into your life because they make you do so many things,” Andring, 44, said of drug court. “I thought it would be just another program, but it saves a lot of people because of the structure. It's not like any of the other programs.”
Rich Gregory of Jeannette and Josh Rimmel of Vandergrift loaded up the last few buckets of stones Sunday afternoon before taking a group photo with probation officers and county detective who have become like friends.
“What they've given me, I just kind of want to give back to them,” Rimmel, 35, said. “Ultimately, it is us doing the work, but they're there to support us.”
It was the first time volunteering in the county for Rimmel and Gregory. They've both been in drug court for about a year and hope to graduate later this year.
“It just gives me another chance at life, a better chance at life,” Gregory, 34, said. “It gave me the chance to stay clean.”
Participants submit journal entries to either Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio or Judge Christopher Feliciani and can earn incentives for good behavior. Sanctions such as jail, community service and other punishments are imposed for failed drug tests and other violations. Major violations result in expulsion from the program.
“We look for everybody to become productive, of course, help them find another way other than using drugs,” said Eric Leydig, a county probation officer and drug court coordinator, adding that the volunteer day helped participants to “become more pro-social without negative consequences.”