TULALIP — Melody Smith clung to her father’s legs as they stood in front of the audience that filled the gym.
More than a dozen people lined up underneath the basketball hoops to congratulate Verle Smith. They had been working with him for more than a year while he completed drug treatment.
Smith, 52, was celebrating 439 days of sobriety. He graduated from the Tulalip Healing to Wellness Court last week in a ceremony at the Don Hatch Youth Center. Smith is a member of the Tulalip Tribes.
He’s the first person to complete the program. It’s an option for those who have been charged with a nonviolent crime linked to drug use to avoid criminal prosecution, and to get sober.
Participants agree to go into outpatient treatment while they make their way through the court. The program lasts about a year, but is extended if the person relapses.
Team members check in with each client regularly, to make sure everyone follows the rules. In the end, a judge decides who can graduate.
Smith had been homeless for a couple of years and was using methamphetamine when he started treatment. He had been struggling with addiction for about three decades, he said.
“I knew what I wanted in life, but it was a merry-go-round,” he said. “I could not find it.”
His first day in the program was May 23, 2017. He relapsed once, about three months after he started.
Smith made a drum during his time there and had it signed by the others in his group. He left it with the staff, who say it’s going to hang in their meeting room from now on.
About 20 other people are going through the process now. Some started before Smith. The next commencement is planned for the beginning of the year, program manager Hilary Sotomish said.
One of her goals has been to connect people with their families and neighbors again, she said.
The tribes had put something similar together in the past. There wasn’t much funding and it was run by volunteers. It faded away after a while.
This time, the tribes received a grant. They hired Sotomish around that time. The court opened in January 2017.
Tribal board member Les Parks has been involved with the program since the beginning. He hopes that one day it can expand to help more people, he said.
He knows there are many others in the area living with addiction, and he wants to encourage them to make a change.
The day of the ceremony, Parks talked about how proud he was of Smith.
“It took a lot of courage and strength to stick with it,” he said. “Not everyone is going to have that.”
Four long tables were set up on the basketball court. Each had cedar branches arranged down the middle. At least 100 people gathered around.
The ceremony opened with a prayer. Tribal leaders took turns talking about Smith’s success. People began playing drums while others sang and danced.
Many of Smith’s family members were there. He’s had to stop seeing some of his relatives because of their drug use.
“I tell them all the time, ‘Come to my side,’ ” he said. “When it’s their time, it’s their time.”
His friends gave him gifts, including a handmade drum and a blue blanket, both printed with native art. He wrapped the fabric around the little girl’s shoulders. She stood between his feet until everyone sat down for a meal together.