There was no pomp, no circumstance. Instead the graduates two-stepped to Kirk Franklin's "123 Victory" into a small auditorium scented with fresh flowers and decorated with balloons and streamers last week.
They had successfully completed the Salvation Army's Renewal Place, a two-year residential recovery program for women in Memphis battling chemical addiction. From mothering skills to emotional support to basic life skills, the residents are provided with everything they need to live a productive, drug-free life after graduation.
At the Purdue Center of Hope on Jackson, the three women stood in front of friends and family to tell their stories of redemption from homelessness, incarceration, custody battles, and one common demon: drugs.
Tissues were passed, hands were raised, amens and hallelujahs resounded.
"You can't come to graduation at the Salvation Army without going to church," Capt. Zach Bell, the Army's area commander, disclaimed early in the program after leading the room in prayer. "There are a lot of pasts in this room, but today, we are celebrating three resurrected souls God has brought from darkness to light."
Since Renewal Place opened in 2001, 78 percent of graduates have maintained sobriety after the program. Those numbers are well above the national average of 10 to 50 percent, according to Salvation Army officials.
The program is the first long-term addiction recovery program in the country to allow children to stay with their mothers and heal alongside them.
Children of addicted mothers are more likely to have suffered from trauma, causing a slew of emotional disorders and learning disabilities. Program director Sharon Cash said it's as important for the child to be treated as the mother.
"Seven people get their lives changed by mama getting sober," said Cash, who introduced the approach.
Renewal Place is just one of four programs in the Salvation Army's Heal Memphis initiative, which aims to reverse addiction, poverty, homelessness, and violence in Memphis. The Single Women's Lodge and the emergency family shelter, under the same roof as Renewal Place, are where homeless women and their children can live for up to 90 days, while gaining emotional, financial, job, and housing stability. Together these three initiatives make up the largest provider of shelter and services for homeless women and children in the city, having helped over 12,000 women get back on their feet since 2001.
The common denominator for all of the Salvation Army's programs is the goal of showing the city and the country that there is another way to deal with trauma, violence, and addiction.
But Heal Memphis needs needs local support, said Ellen Westbrook, the group's director for community relations and development, because government funding was cut from the program last summer.
"The return on investment is huge," Westbrook said. "We can't just throw our hands up anymore saying 'oh that's just Memphis.' The cycle can be broken. We've proven that."