TULALIP – For Tulalip’s Summerlee Blankenship, she already knew the journey to sobriety is fraught with obstacles capable of swaying the most determined recovering addict.
As a Snohomish County Drug Court alum, she successfully completed the program but didn’t stick with it and, in a vulnerable moment, relapsed.
She got a second chance Feb. 28, 2017 when she was welcomed into the Tulalip Tribes’ Healing to Wellness Court program.
During a regimen of treatment, counseling and wrap-around services, stressors like money issues, relationships and loss of a loved one are expected to crop up, but Blankenship didn’t bargain on the tragedy that befell her last July.
With eight months to go in her 537 days of sobriety in the Wellness Court program, her house was destroyed after a roommate’s cigarette started a fire.
“I lost everything,” said Blankenship, 28, including baby pictures of her now 7-year-old son, Cruz. “All I had was the clothes on my back.”
This time, she didn’t turn to heroin and methamphetamine to numb the trauma.
“I just kind of picked up my feet and did what I had to start over,” Blankenship said. “There was no other way to look at it. Wellness Court was my final chance, and so I took advantage of it.
“This time, I focused on myself, I did things for my future, and tried to accomplish goals.”
Blankenship was honored as the first woman graduate of the Wellness Court during a ceremony March 18 in the Don Hatch Jr. Youth Center’s Greg Williams Court.
Tribal leaders, Wellness Court team staff members, friends and fellow participants attended a luncheon, but it was family members she was especially grateful for being there. She said not everyone is as fortunate to have family support in the program.
“They’ve never given up on me,” Blankenship said. “They’ve done the tough love when they needed to. My mom had me arrested and called the cops on me a number of times, but it saved my life.”
Her grandmother, Donna Paul, sat by her side through her check-in appearances before the judge that is part of the process.
“She’s made me about the proudest grandma, today and yesterday, and I know tomorrow,” Paul said. “She worked so hard for this, and if I wore a hat I’d have to take it off to her because she has done spectacular.”
Paul owned the house that burned down. Her granddaughter was so crestfallen by the loss that she raised funds through a Go Fund Me campaign online, and gave her all the money to help cover some of the costs for damage and removal.
Summerlee’s mom, Dusty, and her dad, Dave, were at the graduation. Dusty called her daughter an inspiration and the strongest woman she knows.
“What we’ve been through from start to finish, has been the most incredible fear of parents,” Dusty said, referring to every parent’s nightmare of an overnight call that their child is in jail, hospitalized or dead.
Dusty, who lives in Gig Harbor, told her daughter that if she was ready to clean up and enter the Wellness Court program, “It will be from start to forever, and she has done amazing.”
Her younger sister, Haley, attended the ceremony while on spring break from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, where she is studying astronomy.
She is proud of Summerlee for being back united with family and being a mom.
“I’m glad that my sister is really trying to get better again, and the main thing I’m happy about is I know where she is,” Haley said, adding that there were long periods when her sister’s whereabouts were unknown by family members.
Tribal leaders spoke at the commencement.
Teri Gobin, who was named chairwoman days after the ceremony, said: “It’s awesome to see this happening. We want to see bigger and bigger gatherings like this for this community, for this program, for Summer and our tribe.”
That could come true as the tribal board has lifted the cap of 20 non-violent participants in the Wellness Court program to allow as many members as possible who are seeking help, meet the program’s criteria and pass an assessment. A second docket day will be added to the court calendar soon to accommodate more participants.
Court advocates said they believe there could be as many as 200 tribal members who could benefit from the diversion program if they were able to staff it.
By successfully completing Wellness Court, participants have any pending charges dismissed and probation cases closed.
The tribal cultural setting is what makes Wellness Court unique from a drug court.
The court offers wrap-around services including medical, dental and mental health as needed, chemical dependency treatment, housing, jobs skills and placement. To graduate – typically in two years – participants must remain stable and accountable while they gain life skills, education and job training planning, while also tapping into the importance of helping their community.
Wellness Court coordinator Hilary Sotomish said when Blankenship entered the program as part of the inaugural class of participant, she wasn’t too interested at first. As she got into the flow, team members saw a change.
Sotomish and the team worried how Blankenship would respond after her house burned down.
“That fire was devastating and traumatizing, but yet she still followed through with her goals of being sober,” Sotomish said.
Blankenship was presented with an exclusive mask titled “A Sacred Journey” made by Kelly R. Moses Sr. It’s made out of grove cedar that is 600 years old. Two paddles on the mask symbolize the paddles facing up to ancestors like is done on canoe journeys. The mask also represents her sacred journey through recovery and wellness.
Wellness Court Judge Remy Stephanson Leonard said the change that has happened from when Blankenship started to where she is today has been extraordinary.
Things are looking up for Blankenship.
Staying with her grandmother, she regained custody of her son in November. She is working full-time as a barista, studying to become a nutritional therapist, and she built up her credit enough to buy her dream car, a shiny black Infinity G37.
Blankenship said as one of the first graduates of the court, the eyes of other participants are on her. She wants to set a good example.
“I just hope to be a pillar of hope, a light for other people and just lead by example,” she said. “I know where I come from, I know a lot of us come from out here, and I know that if I can do it, anybody can do it.”