Judge Sybil Cleveland, who implemented the first mental health court program in the state of Alabama, is one of our five Women Honoring Women honorees.
She is using her life experience and expertise to change the path of people in our community. Cleveland said she knew at an early age she wanted to practice law.
"I wanted to be able to prove to others that regardless of the color of your skin, regardless of your social and economic background that you are as good as anyone else,” Cleveland said.
The youngest of five, Cleveland grew up in Hartselle. She attended law school at Cumberland School of Law at Samford University in Birmingham.
Her first job was as an associate attorney for a law firm where she practiced criminal law and personal injury.
"While I was an associate attorney during the day, I also held a special contract with the city of Birmingham and I worked as a municipal prosecutor, prosecuting the same kinds of cases that I preside over now,” she said.
“After about a year, I applied for a position at the Madison County District Attorney's Office and I was hired by then district attorney Mo Brooks to come to Madison County. I was appointed to the bench in May of 1999 and this is where I have been ever since.”
Cleveland’s journey to where she is today wasn't without adversity.
During Cleveland’s senior year of high school, her mother was diagnosed with lupus. To stay close to her mother, she attended Calhoun Community College. At the time, she put her dreams of attending a four-year University on hold to help her family.
"Her condition had deteriorated so badly that she passed away in March, shortly after I entered school,” Cleveland said. “Unfortunately, my father, two months later who was perfectly healthy, just failed to wake up one morning. He didn't get up to wake us up for church two months after my mother's death.
"There I was, I was left with not knowing where would my support system come from? And by support I don't mean financial, I mean my parents. They were everything.”
During this difficult of time, Cleveland’s grades began to fall.
She dropped out of school and fell into a deep depression.
But in the darkest of times, she found hope.
Some of her father's former co-workers knocked on her door one day and said they had something that her father would have wanted her to have.
“They had cleaned my father's tool box out and they found this jar of money that contained quarters, nickels, dimes, dollar bills,” she said. “And they said they had cleaned out his closet and found this jar of money and they remembered teasing him about it
"He said this is for my little girl and she is going to go to law school.
“Literally at that moment, I realized that everything that I wanted in the way of support of guidance I had already been given.”
Cleveland re-enrolled in Calhoun Community College and continued her journey to obtain her degree.
She is now in her fifth four-year term as a judge.
“I realized when I first came to Municipal Court that I would have a great opportunity to be able to impact lives in a way that could hopefully help people to get themselves back on track,” Cleveland said.
“I believe that we were put on this Earth to help each other and we don't exist in a vacuum and our blessings are meant to be shared and I think that is what mentoring does.”
WAAY 31 is a proud sponsor of the WEDC Foundation and Women Honoring Women event. It's Thursday, September 19th at the Von Braun Center at 5:30 p.m. WAAY 31 anchor Najahe Sherman is the event emcee. Money raised will go to scholarships and educational workshops for college women.