Login | January 28, 2022

New program provides mentors to Summit County Reentry Court participants

Legal News Reporter

Published: January 7, 2022

It’s been more than 15 years since the Summit County Court of Common Pleas Reentry Court Program began in September 2006. Now a specialized docket, there are currently three reentry courts, all of which are certified by the Ohio Supreme Court.
A collaborative effort between the common pleas court general division and Oriana House, the four-phase program takes a minimum of one year to complete and provides treatment and other specially tailored services to qualified offenders—many of whom suffer from a substance use and/or mental health condition--to help them successfully transition back into the community.
While participants have always had access to caseworkers and a variety of treatment providers there wasn’t anyone who had successfully gone through the program to assist them in doing the same.
But that’s no longer the case. It’s all due to a new program called MENTOR (Mentors Empowering Now to Overcome Recidivism), which provides participants with access to volunteer mentors who’ve not only walked in their footsteps but in most cases are also Reentry Court graduates.
Unveiled in June 2020, MENTOR was spearheaded by Summit County Common Pleas and Reentry Court Judge Mary Margaret Rowlands, with the assistance of Reentry Court judges Tammy O’ Brien and Alison McCarty.
“Quite a few years ago, I began thinking that it would be helpful for participants to have a mentor who could be a sounding board to help them work through their challenges and frustrations as they move through the program,” said Judge Rowlands.
“My original vision for MENTOR was for each participant to have access to two mentors, one who graduated from Reentry Court and a second mentor, who had either successfully reentered the community without a program or never had a criminal conviction.
“While that’s not currently the case, I am still hopeful it may evolve that way down the road,” said Judge Rowlands.
As things stand now, there are several mentors available to work with participants, who are led by Reentry Court Mentor Specialist Nicole Argenio.
Argenio, who developed and oversees the program previously served as a recovery coach for the Summit County Turning Point Program. She has been in recovery since Jan. 1, 2013.
“I was in and out of institutions and jails for many years before I turned my life around and I think if I could have had a mentor who had gotten in trouble and understood what I was going through it would have made a big difference,” said Argenio.
“It’s important to have someone you can relate to give you suggestions on how they overcame their problems because I think you are more likely to listen to that person.”
Argenio requires those interested in serving as mentors to complete 16 hours of Peer Mentor training provided by eBased Academy.
“It covers a wide range of issues, including ethics and boundaries for peer recovery supporters, health and wellness and the history of addiction,” said Argenio.
“We also ask that mentors be at least 18, have firsthand successful experience with recovery or the justice system and be willing to meet at least monthly with the participant they are assigned,” Argenio said.
Although mentors begin working with their mentees while they are participants in Reentry Court, the relationship doesn’t have to end with graduation.
“The benefit to the MENTOR program is you have a mentor for life if you choose,” said Argenio.
Northfield, Ohio native Michelle Wells was the first Reentry Court graduate to successfully complete the required mentor training.
Sentenced to four and a half years in prison at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville for drug-related offenses by Common Pleas Judge Rowlands, Wells graduated from Reentry Court in October 2020.
During her time in Reentry Court, Wells became a certified Ohio Mental Health & Addiction Services peer recovery supporter. She is also certified in mental health first aid.
“Judge Rowlands saved my life,” said Wells. “If she would not have sentenced me, I don’t think I would be where I am today. Reentry Court gives you the tools you need to learn a new way of living.
“I was a drug addict for 27 years and I’ve completely changed my whole life and I was so honored when Judge Rowlands asked me to be a mentor for the program so I could help other people.”
Wells, who works full time as a peer recovery supporter for Community Oriented Recovery said she’s committed to helping her mentees in any way she can.
“I share my story, explaining where I was and where I am now,” said Wells. “I tell them Reentry Court is not a punishment, but an opportunity to gain new tools. I encourage them to take all the employment classes so they can create a resume, learn how to interview and how to hold their heads high.
“I am a big believer in education,” Wells said. “I took college courses when I was at Marysville and I also did GED tutoring. I’m helping a mentee get her GED. Whatever they need I’m here.
“Recovery is a work in progress and it always will be,” said Wells. “I’m rebuilding relationships with my family and I want to go back to college and gain more skills so I can expand my ability to help people.”
Mentorship is available on an as-needed or as-determined basis, said Judge Rowlands.
Since MENTOR started, Argenio said more than two-dozen Reentry Court participants have been assigned mentors and at least ten have graduated with their assistance.
“Recovery is possible but we do not have to do it alone anymore,” said Argenio. “With programs like the MENTOR program, you have the support from someone that has been in your shoes as well as the support of a whole team.”
“While recovery is an important piece of successful reentry for many people, MENTOR was developed to provide support for every challenge formerly incarcerated participants face,” said Judge Rowlands. “The collateral consequences of a criminal conviction can be pervasive and lifelong. Our goal is to help Reentry Court participants navigate those consequences, make positive decisions to overcome them and enjoy a brighter future.”
Anyone interested in learning more about becoming a volunteer mentor can contact Reentry Court Mentor Specialist Nicole Argenio at 330-643-6515 or send an email to ReentryMentorProgram@cpcourt.summitoh.net.