Nathan Chappell’s former lifestyle had all the ingredients for a man set to spend much of his life behind bars.
Instead, Chappell, 23, of Portage, has kicked a long drug habit that he supported by breaking into nearly every business in the Portage area.
But not only is he drug free, but he starts a new job next month at the facility he credits for turning his life around.
The Cambria County Courthouse, a place where outstanding success stories are seldom seen, is basking in the turnaround of Chappell and his goal of living the rest of his life drug free and out of jail
Another top priority of Chappell is to be a top-notch father to his two daughters, ages 2 and 6.
“I have no excuses to mess up any more,” he told Judge Linda Fleming last week.
Fleming responded by quoting Voltaire, a French philosopher of the 1700s.
“Work cures three things, she said, boredom, vice and poverty.”
After nearly two years at the highly intensive Peniel Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Center on Cooper Avenue in Johnstown, Chappell is so convinced the approach works that he stayed a month longer than required and will soon be returning there on a daily basis.
He has been hired by Peniel to help residents find vocations once they are released.
“He’s an excellent role model for the other guys around here,” said Peniel spokesman Durean Coleman. “He gets things done.”
Chappell has a five-year history of burglaries and thefts in the Portage area, crimes he committed to support his drug habit.
His files at the Cambria County Clerk of Courts office number 11 and include, in part, break-ins at Chuggies Bar, Teno’s garage, the Portage VFW, Randall’s Auto and Portage Beverage.
With crowbar in hand, he terrorized the Portage community through much of 2011.
But all of that has changed, Chappell said Friday in a telephone interview from the Johnstown facility started two decades ago by Dr. Marion Spellman.
Peniel is a faith-based rehab center where Cambria County criminals have been going for a number of years, President Judge Timothy Creany said.
“At Peniel they become totally aware of their addictions,” Creany said.
He added that while finishing the program is said to be harder than spending time in jail, he has seen success stories where others who completed Peniel have turned their lives around.
Chappell, a Portage native, said he was raised by his mother after his father, an alcoholic, walked out of his life. He credits the one-on-one counseling for pulling him through.
“Now, I would say it is prayer. When I wake up every morning, the first thing I do is pray,” he said. “I actually didn’t know who God was when I came here.”
During his court hearing, Fleming agreed with him that the rehabilitation program at Peniel is tough and not everybody makes it through.
“I am persuaded you have turned the corner and you have developed insight into your addiction and other problems,” she said to Chappell, who appeared with family members at his side.
“You screw up, you’ll miss a majority of your children’s youth,” she said of the long potential prison sentence Chappell faces if he gets into trouble again. “You don’t solve a longtime problem overnight.”
His probation stretches for 10 years, a long “tail” requested by Scott Lilly, who heads up the appellate division for Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan. It is time Chappell will need to make restitution of about $10,000, an amount that will be shared with a co-defendant.
Terming prison “a college for criminals,” Chappell said he has no intentions of ever going back behind bars again.
Fleming cautioned however, that the time after rehab is the toughest stretch for those trying to stay clean.
“I do want to shake your hand,” she said to Chappell as he moved toward the bench to accept the judge’s wishes for the future.
This next step for Chappell will be the toughest, Coleman said.
“We try to prepare clients for life after treatment. It’s not all roses and dandelions out there,” he said.
Kathy Mellott covers the Cambria County Courthouse for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/kathymellotttd.