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Community Circles program honors volunteers

Leaders, volunteers and supporters of Washington County Community Circles formed a circle and joined hands during an opening prayer led by Mark LaPointe.

A little-known organization that responds to crime in a unique way stepped into the spotlight last week to honor its volunteers.

Members of Washington County Community Circles gathered April16 for a volunteer appreciation event - and to mark the group's 15th anniversary.

"The importance of volunteers to this county cannot be exaggerated," said Joe Spolidoro, chairman of Washington County Community Circles.

The group offers what's known as restorative justice to people convicted of some crimes. Rather than have a sentence executed, those people enter what's known as the "circle" process.

As part of the circles process, offenders sit down with community members, where they share experiences, wisdom and come to terms with the consequences of their actions. Victims can also participate in the process at their discretion.

At the core of the experience, however, are the group's volunteers.

"All the people who have volunteered and worked in these circles for the last 15 years are heroes," Washington County District Court Judge Gary Schurrer said at the event. "What else would you call them?"

Schurrer, one of six people who helped launch the Community Circles organization in 1998, praised community members who have stepped forward to participate in the process, which he admitted isn't always easy.

"These aren't cuddly, needy children," he said.

Still, the Community Circles process - which has fielded 96 clients to date - has been proven to work, Schurrer said, noting that it can't be accomplished by the courts, prosecutors or defense attorneys.

"It can only be done by people helping people," he said.

Washington County Community Circles took root in 1998, first enlisting Cottage Grove and then Stillwater. The circle process came to Woodbury in 2006.

There are currently 17 active volunteers in the Woodbury circle; Cottage Grove has 13 volunteers in its system.

Those who stepped forward at the volunteer ceremony included Anita Goetz, a Woodbury woman who went through the Community Circles process. She told the group that she entered the process as a broken individual who had struggled with alcohol use.

The circles process "totally helped rehabilitate my life," she said.

Goetz noted that she'll be continuing the circle process moving forward - not as an offender, but as a volunteer.

"It's coming full circle," she said.

Woodbury Public Safety Director Lee Vague was among those in attendance at the event held at Stoneridge Golf Course in Lake Elmo. He said Community Circles has seen many local successes and has become "near and dear to our hearts."

"This is it - this is the answer," he said. "To me, this is a perfect example of how it should work."

Washington County Community Circles is offering volunteer training from May 4-5. Anyone interested in participating can call 651-492-4996.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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