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Willmar man, tired of 'struggling and always coming up empty,' graduates drug court program

Eighth Judicial District Drug Court celebrates recent graduate Gerald Cloutier Jr., known as JJ by his friends and support system, at June 8 ceremony.

Gerald Cloutier Jr. shows off his plaque after he graduated from 8th Judicial District Drug Court at Robbins Island Regional Park on June 8, 2022.
Gerald Cloutier Jr. shows off his plaque after he graduated from 8th Judicial District Drug Court at Robbins Island Regional Park on June 8, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune
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WILLMAR — A long sought-after accomplishment was celebrated recently when a Willmar man reached his goal of graduating from drug treatment court.

Gerald Cloutier Jr., known as JJ by his friends and support system, celebrated his graduation at Robbins Island following an outdoor session of drug treatment court. District Judge Stephen J. Wentzell presided over the June 8 proceedings, and made note that this was the first time that drug court had taken place in person since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cloutier began participating in Eighth Judicial District Drug Court on Aug. 15, 2019, after being arrested and charged with felony drug possession and driving while impaired in February 2019. This was his second graduation from drug treatment court, having participated in the court from previous criminal charges in 2017, he said.

“If you are tired of struggling and always coming up empty, always getting the brunt end of everything — there’s consequences for your actions, for what you do,” he said. “I was all-in when I came into this, because I don’t want to be empty anymore. I don’t want to suffer anymore. This program is truly a blessing.”

Gerald Cloutier Jr. looks at his intake mug shot from 2019 following his graduation from 8th Judicial District Drug Court at Robbins Island Regional Park on June 8, 2022.
Gerald Cloutier Jr. looks at his intake mug shot from 2019. He graduated from Eighth Judicial District Drug Court at Robbins Island Regional Park on June 8, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

At the time of his enrollment in drug treatment court in 2019, Cloutier was incarcerated and unemployed, with a long history of chemical use starting at the age of 13. He first entered the criminal justice system in 1998.

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After completing treatment at Project Turnabout, Cloutier resided at The Fortress, a men's faith-based restoration program for recovering addicts based in Willmar. Becoming sober and staying sober was his full-time job after 29 years of drugs and pain, he said.

He did not get a job until six months after he moved to The Fortress, and in June 2021, he left The Fortress with staff blessing and established his own residence.

A necklace of the cross sits around the neck of Gerald Cloutier Jr. after he graduated from 8th Judicial District Drug Court at Robbins Island Regional Park on June 8, 2022. Faith has been a big factor in aiding Cloutier in his recovery from drug abuse.
A necklace of the cross sits around the neck of Gerald Cloutier Jr. after he graduated from Eighth Judicial District Drug Court at Robbins Island Regional Park on June 8, 2022. Faith has been a big factor in aiding Cloutier in his recovery from drug abuse, he said.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

While at The Fortress, Cloutier completed 50 hours of community service, and continues to chair Narcotics Anonymous meetings offered there. He is employed full-time at a local restaurant, and will soon be promoted to assistant manager from shift supervisor.

“He’s not just sober, but living a lifestyle of recovery,” Wentzell said of Cloutier, who had more than 1,000 days of sobriety at the time of graduation. “He does this, however, while maintaining his own unique personality.”

Wentzell told Cloutier that he went through the pre-sentence investigation from a couple of years ago.

“It was such a long time ago, you’re a different person. I didn’t remember that person and, frankly, it’s hard for me to remember that person when I see you here today or when I’ve seen you throughout court over the last couple of years here,” Wentzell said.

Drug court and drug court staff knew that Cloutier was a person worth investing in, Wentzell said, adding that Cloutier was ready to make the changes and give back to the community.

Cloutier is now a person who’s replaced chaos for stability and joy, a person who’s invested in this community, assists others in recovery, reconnected with family, become a trusted manager, and is invested in making these changes for himself, Wentzell added.

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Karon White, Eighth Judicial District Court treatment coordinator, said she has known Cloutier since 2017 when he entered the southern assignment of the Eighth Judicial District Drug Court for drug-related offenses in Chippewa County. She shared his booking photo from 2019 as a reminder of how far he has come in the last several years.

Karon White, who serves as the 8th Judicial District Treatment Coordinator, talks with Gerald Cloutier Jr. about how different he looks today versus when his intake photo was taken in 2019 following his graduation from 8th Judicial District Drug Court at Robbins Island Regional Park on June 8, 2022.
Karon White, right, who serves as the Eighth Judicial District treatment coordinator, talks with Gerald Cloutier Jr. about how different he looks today versus when his intake photo was taken in 2019. They spoke following his graduation from the drug court at Robbins Island Regional Park on June 8, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

“I’m just so proud of the fact that you really grasped this opportunity once again and just really ran with it,” White said. “I know your faith is such a huge part of who you are and that will continue to keep you grounded and moving forward.”

White also read a letter from U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar congratulating Cloutier on his accomplishment.

Encouraging his fellow drug treatment court enrollees to embrace the program

Before concluding drug treatment court for the day, Cloutier had some words of wisdom to share with those who have become his friends through the program.

“Why not just do something positive for yourself and just embrace this opportunity,” he said. “Grab a hold of it and do your best, but know that it affects everyone around you. It affects your children, it affects your parents.”

He told his friends and support group that his father died recently, and he believes that his father was happy with his progress — he was no longer a man his father had to worry about and stress over.

“I’m very grateful for everyone in my life. They’re in my life for a reason, for a purpose,” he said. “I’m very blessed to have this opportunity to be alive, for once, for the right reasons. To see things for love and kindness — to throw away that old side and start new and hold on to it tight, because it’s all worth it.”

He told the other drug court enrollees they matter and everyone around them matters. He sees them making progress and doing well in the program, and he encouraged them to continue on that path.

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Joseph Schaeffer, at left, shakes the hand of Gerald Cloutier Jr. after Cloutier graduated from 8th Judicial District Drug Court at Robbins Island Regional Park on June 8, 2022.
Joseph Schaeffer, left, shakes the hand of Gerald Cloutier Jr. after Cloutier graduated from Eighth Judicial District Drug Court at Robbins Island Regional Park on June 8, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

“It’s not always going to be easy, but it’s very worth it,” he said. “Not only is it worth it, but you become a new person. Your heart is full of love. You get to trust again, you get to love again, you get to understand what life’s really about.

“We’ve all had enough of the bad. Let’s start doing things that are good,” Cloutier said. “And, it feels so good to be good. It’s going to be tough, but remember, anything is possible. You’ve got a good team around you, you’ve got people that care.”

Cloutier has two children who are 7 and 14 years old, who he is able to see whenever they are available. His children are doing well, with his oldest on the B honor roll. He also now has a good co-parenting relationship with their mother.

Gerald Cloutier Jr. is hugged by friend Emmit Bjork after Cloutier graduated from 8th Judicial District Drug Court at Robbins Island Regional Park on June 8, 2022.
Gerald Cloutier Jr. is hugged by friend Emmit Bjork after Cloutier graduated from Eighth Judicial District Drug Court at Robbins Island Regional Park on June 8, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Jennifer Kotila is a reporter for West Central Tribune of Willmar, Minnesota. She focuses on local government, specifically the City of Willmar, and business.

She can be reached via email at: jkotila@wctrib.com or phone at 320-214-4339.
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