NEW HAVEN >> John Zurlo sat with his eyes closed as seven men and one woman placed their hands on his shoulders to pray together on a recent day in a brightly lit room that was decorated with blue balloons and streamers.
The eight praying aloud had walked the same path to recovery that Zurlo was celebrating, an 18-month Christian-based rehabilitation program at The 180 Center.
“This is just the beginning,” said Teddy Natter, a graduate of the program. “Tomorrow is a new season in your life.”
Like a lot of people who shared their stories with the Register of how they first came to The 180 Center at 793 Grand Ave, Zurlo said he was desperate for help after suffering through years of substance abuse and tragedy, including the unexpected death of his mother. Zurlo also has a criminal record and was convicted of third-degree assault in 2013. He served a 1-year prison sentence.
But at the graduation ceremony attended by his friends, family and staff of The 180 Center, Zurlo was celebrating leaving that life behind.
“My way wasn’t working,” Zurlo said in an interview, describing his attempts to get sober and live a good life after leaving prison years ago. “It was clear to me, end of story, this is where I belonged.”
The 180 Center, with its slogan, “Turning Lives Around,” is open to any passerby looking for a cup of free coffee or a meal and often acts as host for more than just the nine clients enrolled in the substance abuse rehabilitation program at any given time — for Bible studies, conflict resolution classes and prayer sessions. The center doesn’t receive any state or federal money, no staff members are paid, and it relies solely on donations from churches and community members to run each month.
The 180 Center began under the Rev. Michael Caroleo’s leadership as U Can’t Do It alone Ministries on Congress Avenue in 2008. The vision of the ministry, he said, is still the same as it was back then: to restore hope and help people through crises with Biblical discipleship, conflict resolution training and learned leadership skills that connect people with God. The idea is to help them find a true purpose in life that does not rely on substance abuse.
ROOM FOR EVERYONE
A table in the back of the center is always stocked with hot coffee and mugs for those looking for a place to warm up, though people may just find themselves in the middle of a Bible study when they do. For the 180 Center staff, the more the merrier.
“There’s room for everyone,” Caroleo said, adding that the center’s policy is to not turn anyone away. “Come as filthy as you are and let God clean you up.”
Free breakfast is served daily at 7 a.m. and lunch is available at noon. Services are held on Sundays at the center at 10 a.m.
“It’s nice to feed, but we can do more,” Caroleo said. “”There’s a place for everyone.”
There can be up to nine men in the 18-month rehabilitation program, but the center also oversees Christian sober houses with a combined total of 50 beds for those in other drug rehabilitation programs or those looking simply to live a sober life, said Teddy Natter, assistant co-director at The 180 Center.
“People turn their lives around here because they were given a chance,” Natter said.
Natter is a graduate of the program himself , and he said it’s important for the staff to lead as the example for those in the program or those who are just coming through the doors for Bible study, services or even just the coffee.
And no matter how many times you leave, you are always welcome back to try again, even in the intensive, 18-month program, Caroleo said.
Vinny Celentano, 31, plans to graduate from the 18-month program in July — his fourth attempt at making it all the way through. He has been struggling with addiction since he was 14, he said, when he first started experimenting with taking prescription pills he found at home.
“There’s not going to be another option for leaving,” Celentano said, adding that he made a promise to himself that if he returned to the program this time he wouldn’t let himself give up.
One of his favorite verses to recite in his mind when he’s feeling called back to his former life, he said, is Philippians 4:13, “I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.”
For the first three months of the 18-month program at The 180 Center, participants can have no contact with the outside world, Natter said. Men can write letters out, but are not permitted to receive anything themselves, he said. Natter said that clients can’t even read the newspaper during that time and other media must be pre-approved by staff.
“It’s tough,” said Natter, who graduated from the program four years ago . “We don’t cater to the flesh. It’s just about realizing your character.”
The next three months, clients can make one phone call a week, and after six months, one weekly visit is allowed until completion of the program.
The goal, Natter said, is to immerse completely in the program. Almost every minute of the day is predetermined with these classes and sessions or time to complete chores and homework from the day.
“I was desperate enough, I didn’t care what the rules were,” said Tara Edmundson, now a co-director at the center. She graduated from the program in July 2013 when women were still admitted. “No one is forced to be here.”
Zurlo made the choice to join the rehabilitation program after he was asked to leave sober house while struggling to stay clean. When he decided to finally call Caroleo and ask to join the program, he said he knew he was desperate enough to submit to it.
“God had me on my knees crying out to him,” Zurlo said. “When I got here, I didn’t know how to receive God’s love.”
Now that he has graduated, Zurlo will be moving into one of the sober houses run by the center as an assistant manager.
“The more obedient I got, the louder (God’s) voice got,” he said to close his remarks at the ceremony. “Love is a choice.”