Drug court graduates Josh Henderson, Nick Heisler, Amber Manzke and Frankie Ward

Two area residents who graduated Wednesday from Ford County drug court — Nick Heisler of Gibson City, second from left, and Amber Manzke of Loda, second from right — pose with previous drug court graduates Josh Henderson of Paxton and Frankie Ward of Gibson City.

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PAXTON — After re-establishing his relationship with God at a faith-based rehabilitation center and starting a 12-step program, Nick Heisler was finally beginning to make some progress in his battle with his addictions to alcohol and drugs.

But just as quickly, he lost his faith. And just as quickly, he succumbed to his urges to use.

After being booted out of the rehab center for sneaking in a cell phone, the then-22-year-old Paxton man went on the lam for about two weeks, disregarding his probation orders.

He was also ready to use drugs and alcohol again.

“I had lost my connection with God, with everything that I was trying to build up,” Heisler said. “And then one night, when I was walking outside to go smoke some weed, the cops pulled up and put me in the back of a cop car.”

At that moment, Heisler realized that God was intervening.

“I sat in the back of that cop car and just felt this overwhelming spiritual presence within me,” Heisler said. “I knew right then that God was in my life, saving me from going back down the path that I knew what the end result was going to be.”

As he sat in a Paxton jail cell for the next 47 days, Heisler was given the option of either going to prison or completing Ford County’s drug court program. On April 4, 2018, he went with the latter, and it changed his life.

After being released from jail, a sober and committed Heisler moved in with his sister, secured a job with a local construction company, and began attending 12-step meetings again.

“For the first time in my life, I was sober; I was a productive member of society,” Heisler said.

He also came to terms with his struggles with addiction and accepted responsibility for his actions.

“In completing the (12) steps, I found out a lot about myself and came to terms with the fact that there was nobody else to blame but me for everything that I had done,” Heisler said.

On Wednesday, Heisler graduated from drug court, along with 29-year-old Loda resident Amber Manzke. Both were treated to standing ovations after they told the small crowd on hand at the courthouse in Paxton how they overcame their struggles with addiction through the program.

“I am now a responsible man. I am a father. And I am a dedicated and hardworking employee at One Earth Energy in Gibson City, where I also live with (my girlfriend) Kayla (Golden), our (newborn) daughter (Charlotte) and her brother and sister, Xavier and Sophie,” Heisler said. “Being a father is something I never thought I wanted to be while I was drinking and doing drugs, and now that I am, I couldn’t be happier.”

As of Wednesday’s graduation ceremony, the 24-year-old Heisler had been sober for 577 consecutive days. And his criminal past — which includes convictions for driving under the influence of drugs, criminal damage to property and defrauding drug and alcohol screening tests — is a distant memory.

“Nick progressed in the phases of drug court, and, as he did, his life changed. He developed healthy relationships, ended unhealthy ones, and began trying to heal the broken ones,” said Heisler’s probation officer, Rocky Marron.

Today, Marron said, Heisler is “a proud father, a leader in the sober community and a full-time employee; he is also an inspiration for this officer and proof that drug court works.”

Manzke is proof the program works, too, with her probation officer, Ellen Maxey, calling her the model of consistency in completing it.

“I’ve had the pleasure of working with Amber since March of 2018 when she was sentenced to drug court,” Maxey said. “Like many other participants, Amber was skeptical of the program at the beginning and unsure of her ability to be successful. There’s a quote that says, ‘Most of life is simply showing up.’ When I think of Amber, the word ‘consistent’ comes to mind. Although she struggled initially with the structure of drug court, she consistently showed up.

“Talking in front of the drug court team was hard for her at first ... but Amber kept showing up and her confidence grew. Amber has been consistent in her stated goal to graduate and has addressed required areas in her life to put her on the path toward today. Amber consistently took suggestions from the (drug court) team and put them into action. Amber has also been consistent in her attitude — she remained positive in the face of many challenges during her time in drug court. Amber’s decision to remain positive ... will serve her greatly as she moves forward.

“I remember Amber before drug court — isolated, unsure of herself and suspicious of the court. Amber’s hard work through this process has left her confident, self-assured and trusting. Amber, the drug court team is so proud of you and we’re very optimistic about your future.”

As of Wednesday, Manzke had been sober for 468 consecutive days.

In her drug court graduation speech, Manzke said she was “pretty hopeless” about the direction of her life before she started drug court.

“I couldn’t stay on the right track, and I kept relapsing,” Manzke said.

Through drug court, Manzke said, she learned to be honest and truthful with others.

“All I had ever known was lying; everything out of my mouth was a lie,” she said. “I know how to tell the truth now.”

Drug court also helped her stay away from people who were using drugs when she admittedly was “not strong enough to do it on my own.”

“After a while, it became a habit, and now I can make relationships with the right people,” Manzke said. “Being surrounded by other sober people has helped me stay sober. I’m most grateful of drug court because they gave me a second chance on life; they held me accountable and helped me stay clean.”

Now that she has committed to a sober lifestyle, Manzke looks forward to taking her kids swimming and to the zoo and family outings.

“Having money that is not spent on drugs can be used on things like camping and enjoying family time,” Manzke said. “I want to thank the drug court team for giving me a second chance and showing me a better way to live without drugs.”

Ford County Circuit Judge Matt Fitton and State’s Attorney Andrew Killian said they could not be more proud of Manzke and Heisler.

“You should both be incredibly proud of what you’ve achieved and remember that as you continue down the path before you,” Killian told them. “Today and every day after is an opportunity for you to use the tools that you’ve acquired in completing drug court. You can rewrite that better future for yourself and your families.”