Prison wasn't enough to get Donnie Wheeler sober. He spent more than three years behind bars for methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana, burglary, grand theft and leading Pasco deputies on a high-speed chase. Upon his release in 2009, Wheeler went to a dope house and got high. "Meth," he said. "That's my drug of choice."
Wheeler, 45, said he stayed high until his most recent arrest in August on two counts of attempted murder. He is accused of shooting a man and his 11-year-old daughter. If convicted, Wheeler faces life in prison. But Wheeler — who denies being the shooter — said right now, he feels the most peaceful he's ever felt.
"God has a purpose for everybody," he said Monday at the Pasco jail. Wheeler said his life has been transformed by Celebrate Recovery, a faith-based addiction recovery program that began in 1991 at Saddleback Church in California where the pastor is Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life. Celebrate Recovery works much like Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous, but it is focused on Scriptures of Jesus Christ. The program is now worldwide — and in the Pasco jail in Land O'Lakes.
"Religion is the rock," Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said. "These people need that rock to hold onto."
He said he is "not afraid" about any possible issues of a taxpayer-funded agency promoting a faith-based program. He said inmates in this program are facing life and death issues and addictions. Helping them become sober, he said, helps the community.
"It's more important that we have people live," Nocco said.
Since he was appointed sheriff last year, Nocco has concentrated on fighting the prescription pill epidemic in Pasco. The jail's chaplain, Bob Loeffler, has been involved in Celebrate Recovery at his church, Lakeview Community Church in Tarpon Springs, for five years and approached Nocco about bringing it to the Pasco jail. The inmates' first meeting was in January. Now there are two men's groups that meet once a week. A women's group is expected to begin next month. Inmates also have access to AA and NA meetings.
Nocco's agency is linking Pasco churches that have Celebrate Recovery programs with the jail, so inmates in the program have support when they are released.
"We want to get them back on their feet so they don't return to the criminal justice system," Nocco said.
Having Celebrate Recovery inside a detention facility is not new. It's not in Pinellas or Hillsborough county jails, but the program has been in the Hernando jail since 2010 and it is in many Florida prisons. Jo Ellyn Rackleff, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections, said the agency itself doesn't sponsor Celebrate Recovery or other faith-based programs "because there is a separation of church and state."
Volunteers run Celebrate Recovery groups in "most all major prisons in Florida," said Patti Reading, a Celebrate Recovery representative who volunteers at Hillsborough Correctional Institution. If Celebrate Recovery isn't in a particular detention facility, "we're trying to be," Reading said.
She said Celebrate Recovery isn't just for those with drug and alcohol addictions. The program says it helps people with their "hurts, habits and hang-ups."
"Codependency, worry, fear, anger, depression, eating, not eating, alcohol, drugs, sex," she said. "It can be all of the above."
Reading, a Realtor who lives in Trinity, said she was introduced to the program at Loeffler's church in Tarpon Springs.
"It has helped me with workaholism, with control, with worry, anxiety," she said.
She said people of all faiths are welcome.
"We encourage them still to come — and let God do the work," Reading said. "Ultimately, God is the one that calls you and moves you into a relationship with him."
Hector Lozano is the national director for Celebrate Recovery Inside, the branch of the program aimed at programs in detention facilities. He said Celebrate Recovery is in "hundreds" of local, state and federal facilities in the United States. Getting the programs inside is usually difficult, he said, as agencies aren't sure about a faith-based program.
The administrators often say "Get lost. We want nothing to do with you," said Lozano, who worked in a California prison for 30 years before retiring to work for Celebrate Recovery full time.
Inmate Donnie Wheeler said he never thought he'd feel this way. He said his addiction was such a part of him, he let his wife and kids slip away.
"She said, 'Quit drinking or lose us,' " he said. "I said, 'I'll see you later. I'm going to the store to get some beer.' " He didn't think she would really leave. She did.
"Celebrate Recovery is helping me," he said. He said the anger he always felt is gone.
"I'm not worried," he said. He hopes to be found not guilty and to go home. But he feels like, if he's convicted, maybe his purpose is to preach Celebrate Recovery to others in prison.
"Through him, all things are possible," he said.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.