Tears of joy filled the ballroom at Sutton Hall in Douglasville on Monday night as 13 young women celebrated taking one more step on the road to recovery as Recovery Unlimited hosted its Living in Freedom Everyday (L.I.F.E.) annual graduation.

Directed by Gerald Rhett and Gabrielle Johnson, Recovery Unlimited takes in a group of women for typically six months where everyone meets for five days a week and three hours a day for drug treatment. The program is broken down into three phases, which are in two-month increments. There were five women on Monday night who moved up phases in the program. Upon completing the third phase, the individual can prepare for graduating the program.

Recovery Unlimited also works with adolescents three days a week, individuals who work three nights during the week and Saturday afternoon, children who come from DFCS care and family therapies. A lot of the family members invited to the other therapy programs are related to the women who come through the L.I.F.E. program. The L.I.F.E. graduates are also given the opportunity to enroll in one of the Recovery Unlimited parenting therapy programs if they’re regaining custody of their children after becoming clean.

“I’d like to consider us the Walmart of treatment,” Rhett said before laughing.

The next step for the organization is to add a residence for complete treatment resources for all interested women.

“It’s unlimited recovery,” Rhett said. “We want to give people unlimited access on all levels to recovery.”

During the ceremony, many graduates gave emotional expressions of gratitude to the recovery staff.

“Thank you so much Dr. Rhett and Recovery Unlimited for empowering me to dig a little deeper so that my secrets wouldn’t keep me sick,” program graduate Tina Rutledge said. “Once I did that I felt a huge feeling of freedom run through my body.”

While participants have to meet certain requirements to get into the hugely successful drug courts in Douglas County, Recovery Unlimited welcomes most women. The women can either come into the company’s office at 8335 A Office Park Drive in Douglasville or call 678-324-0476 to join a program. The company takes all major insurance policies and some women without insurance have paid $5 a day for each session they attend. The applicants are then tested for the level of care they need. If there’s a high level of care needed, they are referred to nearby residences, Rhett said.

Douglas County magistrate judges Susan Camp and Barbara Caldwell were special guests at the graduation ceremony Monday. Camp said she’s going to begin referring more drug offenders to Recovery Unlimited after the event on Monday night.

“In court, as judges, we always get people to change their lives and this right here is proof that it’s possible to do it,” Camp said.

The entire night had an atmosphere of a family reunion, where everyone seemingly knew and loved everyone else, exchanging hugs-for-hugs. Lexie Cleveland, who was moving up phases at Monday night’s event, had a contagious spirit of joy for all the women who were moving up a level, including herself. Cleveland ran to the stage with her arms raised as a sign of victory when being recognized for moving up phases.

“I want people to know that they are worth it,” Cleveland said. “It is worth cheering for them.”

Mental health therapist Tara Nichols said the closeness of the group is inevitable because of how much time they spend around one another. Nichols hosted the event, walking around the ballroom and interacting with former and current recovery graduates.

“What this program and this graduation show are that with a loving, supporting environment, with treatment, with opportunity, that they can have the tools and skills to change their life,” Nichols said. “As long as they take what they’ve learned and made one small change every day, one right move every day, just do the next right thing, their life can be drastically different.”

Nichols is the founder and president of a non-profit organization called the Nichols Center in addition to working with the Douglas County Homeless Coalition, where she is the organization’s former president. Nichols also noted that back at her house, she has two children, a “bonus” stepson, 35 chickens, and two dogs. She described her household as “constant chaos.”

Family members of the graduates packed the ballroom to the point where more tables and seats needed to be added to even start the event. One of the eight graduates, Elizabeth Watkins, was embraced by her sister with a long hug after the ceremony.

“It’s amazing,” Wakins said. “It’s a once in a lifetime experience. Just the feeling of completing something that you work really hard for and something that you really need. It’s amazing.”

Watkins’ fiance Brian Hawkins, who’s currently in a treatment program himself, was also in attendance on Monday night.

“To see her willingly get up there, just let loose and express her emotions in the most gracious way she could, it was very inspiring,” Hawkins said after the ceremony.

Michelle Boatright was the graduation keynote speaker, sharing her testimony of once facing a lifelong prison sentence before discovering God, becoming clean off of drugs and starting her career and life in Douglas County. The message in her speech was that individuals who seek a full recovery need to change the people around them, the places they are, and the things that they do.

After the night of encouragement, inspiration, and appreciation, Watkins had one last simple piece of advice to leave for Douglas County residents.

“If you need help, come to Recovery Unlimited,” Watkins said.

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