Lisa Saccu is all about straight talk. She can look at a person and tell where they've been and where they're headed, and doesn't have a problem sharing what is on her mind.
That's because she's been there. She's led the life of an addict, blowing her paycheck on drugs and emptying her savings account to maintain that lifestyle. And later, when that money was gone, selling herself to fund her habit. So when Saccu tells you she can pick out the women who won't be "long-timers" in recovery, you can't help but believe her.
"I can see through the shenanigans, and I want to get to the bottom of it if something doesn't look right," she says. "My role is to lead and guide, and just give people hope that they can come from where I've come from."
Saccu, who celebrated one year of sobriety in March, is the new in-house coordinator for Hope House, a sober living facility in Groton run by the Community of Hope, Inc., (COH). Community of Hope is a Christian recovery program that offers spiritual counseling, mentors and prayer partners, life skills training, Bible study, and clothing and household items to those in need.
June will mark Saccu's one-year anniversary at Hope House, a two-story home that provides living quarters for up to eight women in an "encouraging family-style environment."
"This is a place for women who desire to change their lives. It's not only for addicts or the homeless, but for those who have been abused and neglected, and their life has gotten derailed," explains Annette Eldridge, COH's executive director.
At Hope House, the women are learning tools that will help them maintain their sobriety, and eventually, go on to independent living. The living facility was created, says Eldridge, because COH board members realized that many women needed more than just counseling. They were finding that after counseling, a high percentage were returning to the same communities and interacting with the same group of people, which would lead to them again becoming users.
So COH, which started in 2005, began fundraising and in 2011 purchased the home. Most residents are referred to the home after completing some form of counseling program. There's no limit to how long the ladies can live in the house, but they have to be "actively participating" in their recovery, says Eldridge, and abide by two rules.
"Sobriety and peace. Those are our two zero-tolerance rules. If either one is broken, they have to go," she explains. "People trying to maintain their sobriety need peace. Being here may be the first time they have a place to have a clear head."
In the early 1990s, Saccu was working at a well-known salon in New Haven, where she styled and colored the hair of television personalities, musical artists, and some state officials. Her job was so lucrative that it enabled her to adopt a lavish lifestyle, one that included plenty of traveling and "dabbling in drugs, mostly cocaine," she says.
By 1996, she was spending her days working in the salon and her nights running the city streets. That year, she was standing on a street corner with a pocketful of money, when she was assaulted.
"I heard a car door slam and then there was a hit to my head," she recalls. "There was so much bleeding, they didn't think I would live."
She suffered a traumatic brain injury and spent weeks in an intensive care unit. After recovering, Saccu says she tried to return to her former life, but the next few years proved difficult.
"I got deeper into drugs, then trouble with the law, and then my drug addiction went to greater lengths," she says. "I was prostituting, stealing, and living on the streets."
During the next 10 years, Saccu was in and out of York Correctional Institution in Niantic.
When Saccu came to Hope House in June 2012, it was after spending 3½ weeks at a transitional-living house in New Haven, and three months at Stonington Institute. Earlier that year, she found herself standing in front of a judge, waiting for her sentence in a credit card case. She was facing a one-year suspended sentence and two years of probation.
"I was not scared of doing time. I was used to doing time. But I just laid it all out for the probation officer," she says. "I was pretty much running a crack house and prostituting myself. There was so much shame and disgust, and I couldn't take it. I finally said I was done."
While at Stonington Institute, Saccu began thinking and praying – about where her life was headed and what she needed to do to get there. She researched a few places that would have openings available, but kept coming back to Hope House, despite the five-page list of rules that she had come across.
"I was like 'Are you kidding me, God?', but you know what, I decided to come anyway," she says, despite not knowing that five-page list had been whittled down to just two rules. "When I was in prison, a lady invited me to Bible study and I went. And then I went back every Wednesday, even though I was skeptical.
"In my heart, I knew these people had something and I wanted to find out what it is. They had so much freedom and happiness," Saccu says.
These days, she spends her days teaching Bible study, doing chores, writing in her journal, and volunteering, singing, and attending recovery meetings at local churches.
She's spoken to high school students about addiction and where it can lead, and is working with her mentor to secure a scholarship to attend college in the fall. Three years from now, Saccu sees herself back at York, not as an inmate, but as a former prisoner whose mission is to support incarcerated women through a faith-based ministry.
"I want them to know that they don't have to settle or sell themselves short, to keep running after what (they) think is the answer," she says. "I didn't think God could still love me after all I've done, but you pray for what you need and God shows up."
Community of Hope Inc.