September is National Recovery Month, meaning Saturday's third annual Next Step Organization Walk-a-thon at the Georgia Wildlife Federation Alcovy Conservation Center was scheduled appropriately.
The Next Step Organization, directed by Randi Lester, is made up of women who have successfully completed the intense long-term residential recovery program provided by the Rockdale Houses for Men and Women.
Lester said these women who broke the law, yet found a new lease on life through the houses decided they wanted to give back to the community by creating a network of individuals who could help people transition back into society once they completed the residential rehabilitation program.
"We wanted to be able to help people and let them know we can make a difference," Lester said.
House manager Tracey Burnette said Next Step also strives to eliminate the negative stigma so often attached to recovering alcoholics and addicts by reaching out to the community by adopting families in need during the holidays, going on prison visits and traveling to high schools to share their experiences with students.
Both Lester and Burnette served prison terms and completed the program at the Rockdale House for Women.
Lester has been sober for seven years. In 2001 Alcovy Circuit Chief Judge John Ott sentenced her to serve jail time, six months at the Rockdale House for Women, 480 hours of community service, two years of probation and pay thousands of dollars in fines after her fifth DUI conviction in a year in a half.
It took Lester a long time to understand Ott's harsh ruling and to take ownership of her alcoholism, but said the structured environment provided by the house worked for her addiction.
"It's like being a child all over again," Lester said. "You have to ask permission to do anything."
She credits the staff of the house, many of whom are also recovering addicts, for helping her through the most difficult time in her life.
"It saved my life," Lester said. "I would not be here if it wasn't for the house."
Burnette also served prison time for drug possession and burglaries and had her sentence transferred to the Rockdale House.
She began working full time for the women's house this April and is studying to be a certified case manager.
Burnette is also a member of the Next Step Organization.
"It's important to see there is a life after rehab," Burnette said. "We need to let them know it's OK to ask for help, and we're there to help."
Lester invited Ott, the man who sentenced her to prison, to speak at the walk-a-thon and witness the work the Next Step Organization is doing.
"I see individuals in my court at the broken times of their lives - when they've messed up," Ott said.
He explained he has to rule against someone with punitive measures even if he sympathizes with their personal struggles.
"It's very invigorating and interesting to see individuals who've taken control of their lives and turned it around for the better," Ott said.
The theme of this year's National Recovery Month involves comparing the costs of treatment and preventive awareness education to the costs of law enforcement intervention, legal proceedings and unemployment resulting from addiction.
Burnette said treatment and prevention education cost thousands of dollars less than punishing or financially supporting addicts.
"The purpose of these homes is to help addicts and alcoholics become productive members of society," Burnette said.
This year 40 people participated in the walk-a-thon.
"The bigger we get, the more we're able to help," Lester said.
Lester said the money raised from the walk-a-thon will hopefully allow one man and one woman to go through the residential program as well as sponsor a family's Christmas.
"If I could ever give a message to anyone, it's that this is a pay-it-forward program," Lester said. "We can't keep it if we can't give it away - we've got to give it away."
For more information about the Rockdale Houses for Men & Women, the Next Step Organization or how to donate, visit www.rockdalehouses.org.