Dale Beaulieu had been through graduation ceremonies before. This one was different.
And not just because it was conducted via Zoom.
This graduation was the most meaningful.
Dale is a recent graduate of the Douglas County Behavioral Health Court (BHC). The program, started in 2017, connects defendants who have a serious mental illness to community support services — including social workers, case managers and peer support — with the goal of reducing their return to custody. The Court offers a specialized docket designed to address the unique needs of offenders who have a mental illness.
Dale had participated in graduation ceremonies before — high school, college, a master’s degree from the University of Kansas.
“This was my favorite,” he said. “It was very personal. Much more personal than an academic graduation. I had to face parts of myself that I really don’t like and I found a way to forgive and heal.”
The year-long Behavioral Health Court program was one of the best experiences of Dale’s life. And it started with one of his worst experiences — he was charged with battery after a disturbance with a security guard in the emergency room at LMH Health.
Dale, who is 63, has bipolar disorder and has had repeated hospitalizations.
“They thought I was a good candidate for the Behavioral Health Court,” he said.
He was. The program was just what he needed to get his life back on track.
“It was less like a court and more like a 12-step support group,” Dale said. “People had each other’s back and believed in each other. Nobody shames you or makes you feel bad. They were supportive and encouraging. It was one of the best support systems I’ve ever seen in my life.”
As far as the incident that landed him in Behavioral Health Court, Dale said, “What happened with the security guard, I wasn’t in my best place. I don’t have any anger toward him.”
Dale has not been hospitalized for more than a year, something that for him has not happened in a long time.
“I’ve been out of the hospital for a year now, which is really good for me,” he said. “The people at the Behavioral Health Court really assisted me in making good choices. I got myself into a real healthy rhythm.”
Dale had only positive things to say about his experience with Behavioral Health Court.
“They set it up so you would have to work really hard to fail,” he said. “Everyone was kind and considerate. They made me feel connected and a part of the whole group. The group supported and encouraged and uplifted each other.”
Dale has been a client at the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center. Sara Walker, his therapist, and Sharon Zehr, a Bert Nash Center therapist who is part of the Behavioral Health Court program, have been instrumental in Beaulieu’s recovery.
“Sara is just one of the most exceptional human beings I have ever met, her sincerity, her care, her kindness,” Dale said. “Sara and Sharon and Judge Sally (Pokorny), they want the best outcome for everyone. They are so encouraging and uplifting and sustaining. The leadership of the court really helped us. They are just a great group of people.”
Here are what some of those people had to say about Dale:
Sharon Zehr, Bert Nash Center therapist assigned to Behavioral Health Court: “I feel really good about how the BHC program helped Dale interact with the criminal justice system in a positive way, making him feel like a respected human being and not a criminal. Dale inspired the other participants as well as the BHC team as he made us all aware we are doing something worthwhile. I sincerely enjoyed working with Dale and wish him well.”
Jolene Born, Adult Services Officer for Douglas County Criminal Justice Services assigned to BHC: “Behavioral Health Court is about establishing connections and resources to help those who need some guidance. It truly is a team effort and the defendants are part of that team. Dale has taught everyone to trust in the process and good things can come. He has been a role model to others in the program. I can honestly say that Dale’s positive attitude and grace toward others has impacted all of us on the team.”
Sara Walker, Bert Nash Center therapist: “There is a lot to say about this amazing human. I feel very honored to be able to work with him. Dale is the kind of person you would always want on your team. He shines like a bright star to anyone who is lucky enough to meet him. His talent as a writer and artist is brilliant. He has a great love for his children which shows up in many ways in his life. The way he can observe someone and dispense the perfect validation has always been an endearing part of who he is. Though he has suffered in many ways in this life, he has worked hard to find ways to deal with it and move toward a life he can feel good about.”
District Attorney Charles Branson: “I am so happy that we have been able to create a program that can help people like Dale overcome personal obstacles to improve their life. The criminal justice system is there to create accountability but it has to be done in a way that provides the defendant with a means to improve their situation and that means meeting people where they are.”
Judge Sally Pokorny: “Dale fully gave himself and his life to Behavioral Health Court. We came to him at a time when he needed BHC and he was ready for a program like BHC. He was a joy to have — always so encouraging to the other participants and very open about his struggles and what he thought would help him on his road to wellness. He took advice and followed through. Primarily, Dale’s loving and giving spirit came through at every meeting. The entire team embraced him. I wish him the very best and I hope he knows I still love him!"
Dale thanked Judge Pokorny for her support and encouragement throughout the program.
“The judge could find something good about everybody every day,” Dale said. “Her steadfast belief in us, her rigor in keeping us accountable … that kind of leadership, it was a privilege to be in her presence.”
There was one time in particular when Dale was having a bad day and was feeling disgruntled when he came to Behavioral Health Court.
“The judge just told me, Dale, I didn’t know if I was going to ever say this in behavioral court, but I love you,” Dale said. “For a guy who didn’t feel like he was a human being for many, many years, that was pretty amazing. That spoke more of her greatness than mine.”
Dale feels like he has been given a second chance and he is grateful to the Behavioral Health Court for the fresh start.
“Anger, hurt or resentment are not part of my program anymore,” he said. “I couldn’t be where I’m at without all their help.”
** Story and Photo by Jeff Burkhead, Communications Director at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center