The graduates wore green jumpsuits rather than caps and gowns, but the significance of the commencement ceremony that took place at the Fayette County Detention Center on Tuesday rivaled any formal school graduation.
Six men and one woman were marking their completion of Steppin' to a New Beat, a new 12-week program aimed at giving inmates the skills and support necessary for successful living outside the jail. The hope is that they will avoid being locked up again.
The program is sponsored by the Bluegrass Workforce Investment Board, in partnership with the Division of Community Corrections.
"Most of us came down here with the intentions to get some time cut," said Cory Brown, who has served 8½ months of a 10-month sentence for a probation violation.
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But he said he is leaving the program with the skills to help him "be a better friend, a better father, boyfriend or husband."
The program takes a holistic approach, with participants receiving instruction on topics including résumé writing, money management and the importance of proper diet and exercise. Those that don't have a high school diploma work on their GEDs. Spiritual needs are addressed, and mechanisms for coping with problems such as depression and anger are taught. The men completed a course on how to be a better father.
"It took a whole village of professionals who have a touch of love to come together" for the program, said Tayna Fogle, the re-entry specialist who leads the program.
Fogle, a former University of Kentucky women's basketball player, knows firsthand what the men and women in the program are going through: She was once sentenced to 10 years in prison for a felony drug offense.
"When you exit out of here, we're going to be waiting for you," she said. "We're going to beat the dope dealer this time."
But, she added, "if anybody is walking out of here and your heart hasn't changed, all bets are off."
Clark Kidwell, a local businessman and volunteer who taught the inmates job skills and finance, said he would like to continue to mentor them for a year after they are released.
"But the deal is, they've got to call. I'm not calling them," he said.
Ten men and 10 women are still going through the program.
Several of the graduates grew teary-eyed as they thanked Fogle and the other instructors in the program for working with them.
"We went from nothing to something. We had people that always looked at us as something," said Maurice Collins, who is scheduled to be released May 4 after serving six months for a probation violation. "Jail is not the end. It is the beginning to better decision-making, positive living."
Leah Atkinson, a federal inmate who said she has been in the jail for the past 18 months after being charged with cultivating marijuana, said Steppin' to a New Beat "has opened up so many doors, not just in the community, but in my heart.
"I'm looking forward to going back out and really doing something wonderful."
Amid the celebratory atmosphere, Rodney Ballard, the new director of the detention center, warned the graduates that tough times might be ahead.
"You're going to have doors closed on you," he said, because the economy is still struggling. "Don't give up. Keep trying. Sell yourself. ... I guarantee, each one of you has a skill."
Ballard said he hopes to track the graduates in order to determine to what extent the program should continue.
And he said he hopes to hear feedback from them in the future: "You're welcome to return," he said, "via the front door."