Chanlyut helps men restart, learn to ‘live life on life’s terms’

Chanlyut director Bill Tsurnos sits in the living room of the residential re-education program. Hillman/KSKA
Chanlyut director Bill Tsurnos sits in the living room of the residential re-education program. Hillman/KSKA

Sometimes starting over means more than just looking for a new job or a new place to live. It means relearning how to “live life on life’s terms,” says Bill Tsurnos, the director of Chanlyut. The free, two-year intensive residential program in Anchorage run by Cook Inlet Tribal Council is helping men do just that.

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Tsurnos sits in a bright, airy common room, his late uncle’s heavy gold ring whacking into the table as he gestures broadly. Twenty years ago, his family never would have let him near such an heirloom.

“A gold ring? I would never have one of these. A Rolex watch? No way. I couldn’t hold one of these for two hours before.” He would sell it instantly, he said. “Everything I looked at, leather coats, all I saw was heroin. How much can I get for that?”

For more than 20 years Tsurnos was in and out of jail. He couldn’t hold down a job for more than a month. He was struggling with a heroin addiction and with the fact that, occasionally, the basics of modern life suck.

“Sometimes it’s like waking up in the same house from the same bed and getting in the same car and going to the same job and doing it over and over and over again. Not just for a day, for a week — for years and years, ya know?”

By the early ’90s, Tsurnos was ready to clean up his act. He joined the Delancey Street program in San Francisco. It’s the model for Chanlyut, the residential education program that he now runs. Chanlyut requires participants to hit reset. They move into the house with only basic supplies and share a bunk bed in a dorm room. For the first month or so, they can’t communicate with any family or friends outside of the program. They focus on relearning the basics — proper hygiene, cleaning the house, cooking dinner.

“I gotta teach them to save electricity, too,” Tsurnos says as he shuts off a light. “That’s living life on life’s terms, Anne! You know if you’re paying the electricity bill, you’re gonna turn the light off.”

But Tsurnos isn’t the only one teaching life skills. The philosophy behind Chanlyut is “each one, teach one.” Once a participant learns a skill, he teaches the next guy who joins the program. Tsurnos says this encourages responsibility and accountability as they earn new privileges, like writing letters to their parents twice a month or moving into a room with single beds instead of bunks.

Eventually participants move on to learning new skills by working for one of Chanlyut’s businesses. They make wholesale foods for coffee shops and do lawn care.

“We have a janitorial service where we clean the Credit Union One Bank,” he says. “I know, how cool is that, huh? They let a bunch of us ex-convicts, ex-drug addicts, criminals go into their bank and clean it at night.”

The emphasis is on ex. The recidivism rate for program graduates is only 19 percent, less than a third of the statewide average. But going to Chanlyut is never a condition of parole. The participants are only there because they choose to be; it’s voluntary.

If someone says otherwise, Tsurnos responds in his gravely voice: “You wrote me a letter and you asked to come here and you told me why you wanted to come here. I didn’t send out no invitations. You said you wanted to be here.”

And if they don’t want to deal with the extremely strict rules?

“There’s the door. Go! If you don’t want to be here, we don’t want you here!”

Kevin Carlson chose to join the program a year ago after six years of drug use and a quick stint in jail. He’d lost his wife and his kids, and says six months of rehab just wasn’t going to be enough to transform his perspective.

He says so far he’s figured out, “how to be less self-centered, less worried about what I need, and more worried about what I can do to help. Chanlyut has taught me that as long as the product is coming out the same, let them do it their way. Not everything has to be my way.”

Carlson says he’s not who he wants to be yet, but through Chanlyut, he’s getting there.

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After being told innumerable times that maybe she asked too many questions, Anne Hillman decided to pursue a career in journalism. She's reported from around Alaska since 2007 and briefly worked as a community radio journalism trainer in rural South Sudan. ahillman (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.550.8447  |  About Anne