“Thank God.”

It's the only thing Maria Hazel could say as SWAT officers handcuffed her in the rain outside a Charleston motel.

Hazel said she was relieved to be arrested after being a drug dealer and user on the run with her husband for so long. Years later, she said it was the impetus that turned her life around.

During the Aiken Safe Communities “Cultivating Community” workshop held on Saturday at the Smith-Hazel Recreation Center, Hazel shared her life story, from being sexually molested and raped as a child, to coping with mental illness and multiple suicide attempts and finally becoming a drug user and dealer.

After being arrested for possession and production of methamphetamine, Hazel remembers lying on the floor of a jail cell and looking up

“I said, 'Whoever's listening, I promise, if you help get me out of this, I'll dedicate the rest of my life to helping others not to be in this situation,'” she recalled on Saturday.

A representative from a local mental health center soon came and spoke with her about getting into a “mental health court” instead of going to prison. She has since then graduated from the mental health court and was even asked to start and lead an alumni association. Hazel now gives motivational talks to people struggling with mental illness or drug addiction and is a formally-trained facilitator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“We want them to get out of it that, yes, there is a path forward,” Cynthia Mitchell, community services coordinator for Aiken Public Safety, said after Hazel's moving presentation. “Whatever situation your neighborhood may be dealing with, there is a path forward.”

Mitchell said she also wants residents to get the message that the City “needs them.”

“There is no gift or resource too small,” she said. “We need everyone at the table sharing and benefitting from what we're doing with Safe Communities.”

Earlier, Lt. Karl Odenthal spoke on improving communities and also community relations with law enforcement.

“I've gotta have something to interact with as a law enforcement officer to make things better,” he said.

Odenthal recalled living in Crosland Park, and an accident destroying the “Crosland Park” sign. Neighborhood residents got together to come up with a new sign.

“We had some reason to come together,” he said. “It's something as simple as getting to know an identity for your neighborhood.”

Odenthal said a way to build trust between community members is getting to know each other. One way Aiken Public Safety can help is by closing streets for community or neighborhood get-togethers. The agency even offers a permit application.

“You'd be surprised the number of people who don't know their next-door neighbor,” one person commented.

Odenthal also offered tips to the room of about 30 people on how to recover stolen items, specifically electronics and bicycles.

After lunch, the workshop reassembled for a roundtable discussion. Mitchell said it's about bringing your problems to the table, but also finding a way forward.

“We hear from our community at this point,” Mitchell said. “This is where iron sharpens iron.”

Michael Walker came to the workshop as a member of the Aiken Pitbulls motorcycle club. Walker said the club wants to reach out to youth more, and is even working on fashioning a building to open for meetings and programs for children.

Walker said he plans to stay involved with Safe Communities, including the Aiken Safe Communities Action Team, which meets quarterly.

“They're doing a lot – all they can do,” he said. “Without help from the community, they can't do much. We've all gotta stick together.”

Teddy Kulmala covers the crime and courts beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012.