From addicted dropout and inmate to Master’s degrees: How 2 Dayton men turned their lives around

Gary Gonnella weighed 130 pounds the first time he entered treatment for drug and alcohol addiction.

“My sister likes to tell me that my liver weighed more than I did,” he said. “It was a very touch-and-go kind of situation.”

That was in 1981.

Gonnella now serves as outreach coordinator for Public Health Dayton & Montgomery County. In recovery for 24 years, he goes out into the community to find those in need of intervention for their own addictions and connect them to the right treatment.

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“I’ve gone from a high school dropout, to now I have my Master’s degree,” he said. “I’ve become a part of my family ... I’ve become part of my community.”

He’s often involved with local police departments and courts through his job, “and not from the side where they’re putting me in jail,” he’s happy to report.

“I have just found a way to be a part of life now and learn how to live instead of just survive,” he said.


It’s been a long journey with starts and stops.

“I went through a few crying spells that I thought I was going insane because I didn’t know what was going on and it was explained, ‘Well, your emotions are coming out. You no longer can cover them up with a shot or with a snort.’”

That first treatment attempt didn’t work. Then he maintained recovery for nine years following a second treatment stint in 1983.

“I decided I was OK and it would be OK to take a drink,” he said.

After that, it would be two more years before he got back into treatment and recovery. Now he hasn’t used drugs or had a drink since Jan. 22, 1995.

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“This is a very aggressive and complicated illness. It sometimes takes several tries to get a treatment plan that works,” Gonnella said. “I don’t think my recovery is a miracle. I think my recovery is a matter of following directions and doing the laid out treatment plan.”

Gonnella is far from the only person in recovery now working in the addiction treatment field. He’s joined at Public Health by William Roberts II, the supervisor of addiction services who is 29 years in recovery from drug addiction.

Roberts also serves as pastor of Bethel AME Church in Middletown.

They’ve both seen the way drug addiction is handled in the community change over the years.

“It is amazing the difference of how we look at recovery today as opposed to how we looked at it 30 years ago,” Roberts said.

Thirty years ago this month he was coming out of the Montgomery County Jail – again. His offenses were always drug related and were things that probably wouldn’t land someone in jail today, he said.

Roberts was able to get treatment for his addiction but also had a felony on his record for years.

“A lot of people were incarcerated and got a lot of strikes,” he said. “I’m glad that at some point the community became educated and began to look at addiction like the disease that it is.”

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