DURHAM — Standing in a packed gym Sunday, awash in thunderous applause, Joanne Bradford started crying.
Along with her 16 friends on stage, all decked out in black gowns and mortarboards, Bradford was a TROSA graduate.
A few years ago, society had different labels for Bradford and her colleagues, according to interviews they gave before the ceremony: Junkies. Drunks. Crackheads. Thieves. Hookers. Convicts.
But after two years at TROSA, an intensive residential drug-treatment program in Durham, Bradford, 49, was a changed woman. She talked about her life before TROSA, how tired she was of her life as addict and thief. She was stopped by a shout from the crowd.
I love you, Mama!
Teary and hoarse, Bradford asked her three daughters to stand.
I am so sorry for all those years, she told them. I was such a selfish human being.
Bradford is among the most recent addicts to have her life turned around through TROSAs mix of tough love, intensive group therapy, accountability and discipline. A central part of the program is work, huge daily portions of work in one of the organizations many enterprises: moving company, lawn-care business, framing shop and Christmas tree sales.
Over the past 18 years, TROSA has graduated thousands and built a sprawling complex on its 13-acre site in the Lakewood section of Durham, home to its businesses and dorms.
Many of TROSAs 428 residents were on hand for the 2013 summer graduation, a raucous affair raw with emotion.
The TROSA Band warmed up the crowd with a high-energy set of R&B and rock standards. The graduates marched in to the sounds of Pomp and Circumstance, immediately drowned out by the cheers of families and friends from TROSA.
Atonya Page read a poem about turning her back on an abusive partner. Gloria Smalls brought the house down with an R&B song. Terrence Cooke talked about how hed send photos of his TROSA paychecks to his family.
My family wouldnt believe it, he said.
And Bradfords family deserved the apology.
A Brooklyn, N.Y., native, she moved to Gastonia in 1984 and fell in with the wrong crowd, she said, telling a reporter the whole story before the graduation:
Stealing, drugs, prison. More stealing, more drugs, more jail. More stealing, then prostitution, more drugs. She finally hit rock bottom in May 2011.
She had moved to Greensboro with her daughter, Natasha Fields. Natasha, then 19, had moved out at age 16, craving an orderly life separate from her mother the addict. Natasha had relented when her mother showed up, depressed and at wits end.
One day, her daughter called from work at McDonalds, fuming with anger. The night before, Bradford had broken into her daughters locked car and emptied her wallet.
She said, Mama, we cant do this. By the time I get home from work, I want you out.
Bradford left and went to the people she used drugs with the night before, the people who took her daughters money. They wouldnt open the door.
Bradford tried to kill herself, downing a fistful of pills. Then she changed her mind and called 911. The paramedics saved her life, then a police officer turned it around.
A police officer told me about TROSA, she said. I want to find that officer and thank him.
Bradford hadnt read a book in 33 years and had never used a computer. Now shes the TROSA crew transportation manager, scheduling the fleet of vans and cars that ferry TROSA residents to jobs and school and doctor appointments. Shes getting her GED.
And on Sunday, she thanked Natasha again for showing her tough love by kicking her to the curb.
Natasha had a wide, warm smile for her mother. It feels like she has really changed, she said.