Audrey Rowe, the District's commissioner of social services, called the occasion a "celebration of life."

For the three women and one man on stage, it was the end of a long and difficult journey from drug addiction to freedom. With tears in their eyes, they accepted their certificates of graduation from Rap Inc., one of two residential drug treatment programs in the city. Their accomplishments seemed particularly significant in the wake of a recent rash of heroin deaths in the District.

As Head Counselor Warren Evans spoke to his "children" before handing each a certificate, his voice trembled. "A lot of people think they can understand what it is to be addicted to drugs," said Evans, also a former addict. "They have no idea of the struggle."

The graduates, ranging in age from 18 to 38, were honored by friends and relatives. Words of encouragement were spoken by Rap Director Ron Clark, Evans, counselor Bennie Van Hoose and Rowe.

"Part of discovering yourself," Clark told the group, "is finding that you do have control over destiny."

Jacqueline Walker, Thomas Anderson, Cynthia Rattler and Gloria Whitfield made up the 13th group of residents to graduate from Rap since the program began in 1970.

Most persons who come to Rap are sent by the courts as an alternative to jail. For about 18 months they live carefully controlled lives at 1731 Willard St. NW.

According to participants, treatment includes seemingly unending and often grueling discussions about personal problems and addiction. As they progress, their responsibilities in the operation of the house increase, as do their privileges -- such as being allowed to visit their families.

During the re-entry phase before graduation, residents must begin full-time jobs or schooling, accumulate $500 in savings and then find a new home in the community.

It is not an easy process, Clark said. Only about 35 percent of the residents actually complete the program. Quite a few drop out and later return to try again.

Dwindling funds from the District government and private sources have forced Rap to reduce the number of residents from about 70 to 50. Still, there is always a waiting list of 150 or more.

For those who complete the program, winning the struggle to feel good about themselves is priceless.

Anderson, 22, gave his diploma to his mother, saying proudly, "This is the first time I have accomplished something." He plans to return in the fall to the Dix Street Academy to finish school.

Walker, 18, was the baby at Rap. The Baltimore woman said she's been a "pothead" since she was 10. She was bounced from one foster home to another because she had behavior problems; she dropped out of school at 16 and then tried to set the school on fire. She came to Rap to kick her alcohol and marijuana dependency.

"I'm very proud of myself," Walker said. She graduated from high school in June and has been accepted at UCLA in the fall, where she will study computer programing and drama.

Cynthia Rattler, 27, was one of the more rebellious Rap residents. It took her two years to complete the program. Now she is working as a keypunch operator and plans to marry a former Rap graduate soon.

Rap has found a new counselor in Whitfield, 38, a heroin user for nearly 20 years. A fifth graduate, Kenneth "Kareem Abdulla" Cook, attended the ceremony in spirit -- he has already moved to take a job in St. Croix, U.S.V.I.