ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Almost three years ago, the Cook Inlet Tribal Council began a social and business experiment in Mountain View. It started with a diner and a small circle of men, caught in a cycle of crime and addiction. For them, the bottom line is about turning their lives around.
The Mountain View Diner is much more than a restaurant. It's part of a program called Chanlyut, which means "new beginnings" in the Dena'ina language.
"I've been a gang member. I've been a drug addict. I've been a criminal. I've been a hippie -- you know, I've been homeless," said the program's director, Bill Tsurnos. "If I can do it, ma'am, anybody can do it. If I can learn to change, they can too."
Tsurnos knows what he's talking about. He's also a graduate of the Delancey Street Project in San Francisco, one of the most successful drug and alcohol rehab programs in the world -- and the blueprint for Chanlyut.
"It's odd that a lot of people have never heard of Delancey Street, but it's been going on -- it's been in business for almost 40 years now," Tsurnos said.
Tsurnos says at age 62, he's 17 years sober, and he says he owes it all to Delancey Street.
"I believe it works because it's non-conventional," Tsurnos said.
Chanlyut has room for about 20 men. Most are re-entering life after prison. The common denominator: hard-core alcohol and drug abuse.
Here, they get a chance to come clean. Food and housing are provided, along with individualized educational counseling and help in earning a high-school equivalency diploma. There are no fees.
In exchange, they must commit to two years in the program, work in one of Chanlyut's business ventures and follow strict rules: no alcohol or drug use, no threats, no violence.
Also, they don't get paid. That's because Chanlyut's enterprises help to support their treatment, and the program's goal is to be self-sustaining through its businesses. A Rasmuson Foundation grant helped to buy land for the residential facility, while a state grant funded its construction.
"My first charge was assault when I was 17, and my second was robbery and assault," said Jeremy Cooper, who's been in the program for seven months.
At 27, Cooper has spent most of his adult life behind bars.
"The bottom line is just it's new, and really since I've been here, this is the longest I've gone without being in trouble in a long time -- and I like that," Cooper said.
At Chanlyut, the entrepreneurial and healing spirits work hand in hand. Workers can also get training in bookkeeping, management and marketing, which helps to build their confidence.
Someday, Cooper says he'd like to run his own business.
"And a lot of my motivation for that is because of where I came from. I want to use that business to give back, and to help hire guys and give guys jobs when they can't find jobs," Cooper said.
Giving back is an important part of the process.
"It's ‘each one, teach one,'" Tsurnos said.
The veterans of the program strive to pass on a culture of accountability.
"The truth, yeah, I always tell them the truth; that's the one thing they need to hear. All their lives they've probably been hiding from the truth," Tsurnos said. "You heard that phrase, ‘You can't con a con?''
Taking the heat is something most workers have to deal with all the time -- but if you've never been able to keep a job, you need a lot of help learning how.
"What Chanlyut kind of is, is a big practice arena. You practice every day, doing what everyday people do," Tsurnos said. "You go to work, you be a good employee, you do the best job you can. You give them an honest day's work for an honest day's pay."
At first, it's boring and hard. But as the Delancey program has shown, given enough time the work ethic can become a conditioned reflex.
"We have a double bottom line," said Chanlyut executive director Ryan Gilbert. "We have a social bottom line, we have a profitable bottom line."
Both standards of measure benefit the community.
"Because what we're doing is, we're producing skilled laborers that in two years, when they graduate from our program, they will hit the streets with marketable skills," Gilbert said.
"Even out of bad situations, good things can happen. And good things happen here all the time," Cooper said.
For those at Chanlyut, one of the best things is the chance to earn their way back to respectability.
In addition to the diner, Chanlyut operates firms that perform catering, building maintenance, moving, landscaping and lawn services. The program presently takes men from all ethnic backgrounds, and CITC hopes to expand to serve women.
CITC says it's too early to determine the program's track record; Chanlyut is building a culture, and that takes time. So far there's been one graduate, with about seven men who have stayed with the program a year or more.
The Delancey Street Project in California started in 1971 with four residents. The program now has about 14,000 graduates and estimates that 75 percent of them have gone on to lead productive lives. Program officials also say it doesn't require taxpayer money.
Contact Rhonda McBride at firstname.lastname@example.org