Helen Ellis is the 2015 recipient of the prestigious Law Day Award. She has worked for San Joaquin County, providing services for those who struggle with substance abuse, for over forty years and is the first and current manager of the San Joaquin County Collaborative Courts, established in 2006. When Helen came to work for the courts, there was only one collaborative court—the Felony Drug Court. Under her leadership, what began as a few basement offices and one program evolved into a program with eight collaborative courts, two school outreach programs, 22 employees, and a budget of $4 million.
Helen would be the first to credit the support of her bosses, the Superior Court judges and Rosa Junqueiro, CEO of the San Joaquin County Superior Court, along with her dedicated staff, as the reasons that she was able to make her vision a reality. They, however, are the first to praise Helen for her many accomplishments. Judge Richard Vlavianos describes Helen as "a driving force in forming court programs." Under her stewardship, the San Joaquin County Collaborative Courts program is currently recognized as one of the best in California, and the nation, for its effectiveness and success.
Helen's passion for her work cannot be understood or explained without telling something of her life story. She was born in Stockton and her parents moved to Salinas when she was a young child. When Helen was five, her father died of alcoholism. Helen adored her father. According to her, he was intelligent, kind, and hard-working; his young daughter was the apple of his eye. His death would be a life-altering event for her and the beginning of her journey to become an advocate for those individuals and families affected by substance abuse.
Life for young Helen after her father's passing was not easy. Her single mother struggled to support the family. Helen began cooking for her family at the age of eight and working to help support her family from a young age. By the age of sixteen, she had moved back to Stockton, was self-supporting, and living on her own. Remarkably, she still graduated from Edison High School and earned a scholarship to the University of the Pacific.
Fresh out of college at the age of 22, Helen knew that she wanted to work with people struggling from addiction. "I wanted to understand why people did what they did. I lost my dad to addiction, and I wanted to prevent others from experiencing my loss. Even though we did not have the same knowledge about addiction at that time—the fact that genetics and mental illness can often be contributing factors for those who have the disease—I knew on some level that many good people were lost to the disease. My life experience and passion to help others caused me to embark on a career focused on the treatment of substance abuse." In Helen's words, "At 22, I thought I could save the world."
In the years that followed, Helen stayed the course. She began work with the Office of Substance Abuse, working in various capacities including, but not limited to, development of policies and procedures, quality assurance, supervision of counselors and clerical staff, outreach and prevention efforts, and educating children and the community about the dangers and risks of alcohol and drugs. Helen never did her work in a routine way. She invited dignitaries to her programs to raise community awareness and underscore the importance of addressing substance abuse. Singlehandedly, she arranged for the famed comedian Louis Anderson to give the keynote address at one event. Helen also turned the Drug Court Graduation into a beautiful celebration at the Bob Hope Theatre where graduates not only received their diplomas but were also congratulated by the community at large. Helen always thought big and sought support—local, state, and federal—in order to expand addiction services in San Joaquin County.
Judge Consuelo M. Callahan of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit describes Helen as a visionary, a person ahead of her times. "Helen knew from the beginning of her career that treatment for substance abuse was crucial because it would keep people out of the criminal justice system, prevent crime, and allow people to become productive members of society. Helen always saw value in all human beings. She always saw the best in people, and she knew that overcoming addiction required a multi-faceted approach and that all of society would benefit if the courts and society joined forces to address addiction. Eventually the rest of us have come to the same conclusion. Helen's work has been impactful to individuals, our community, and to society, and for that, we owe Helen a great debt."
Helen is married to respected Stockton attorney Albert Ellis and she is the mother of two children. She describes her husband as one of her staunchest supporters. Her children, as well, have been great teachers in life. Her oldest son, Michael, has overcome addiction issues himself, is currently employed as a substance abuse counselor with the County, and is involved in outreach efforts directed toward children. Her youngest son, Vincent, tragically killed in car accident in 2005 at the age of 18, was a wonderful son and an excellent student with hopes of becoming a politician and while deeply missed by his family, he remains a great source of inspiration to the entire family. Part of Helen's effectiveness is her own example of resilience and her ability to empathize with her clients who struggle daily to overcome adversity.
Besides her clients at work, Helen has shown a deep commitment to children and the underprivileged of our community. She has organized an annual Christmas event for the Stockton Homeless Shelter in which she has leveraged her considerable community contacts and clout to ensure that families and others do not go without during the season of giving.
Judge Callahan, who is also a close friend, notes that Helen loves to decorate and remodel homes, both inside and out. "Helen told me that when she walks into a nursery she feels like this is what heaven must be like. The colors, the smells, the beauty, the perfection." Callahan further noted, "Helen has that unique quality that allows her to imagine the potential of a home that has been neglected or in need of a makeover and the desire to restore it to its full beauty and potential."
The analogy is not lost on Callahan who notes, "She does the same with her clients."
Having worked for forty years, Helen is eligible to retire on her full salary. When asked why she still goes to work, Helen has this to say: "I began my career believing that I could save the world. While we have not saved the world yet, I believe many people and families have been helped. The impact on the Criminal Justice System has been lessened and San Joaquin County is a better place to live. There's still a lot of work to be done but saving one person at a time seems like a worthy goal."
Father Thomas Thodukulam, Helen Ellis, and Lupe Reyes at the 2015 Law Day Luncheon. Photo courtesy of Hon. Consuelo Callhan.