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Change Begins at Norwalk Shelter

Bill Okwuosa is a big man, with a wide chest announcing to the world that he is a body builder, even under his crisp suit. As he sits at his desk at the Open Door Shelter , there is a slogan on the wall behind him: Based on Strength.

You might think that refers to Okwuosa's physicality, but Based on Your Strength is a program he designed to help prison inmates identify their strengths and work to make changes. It's a style Okwuosa is bringing to Norwalk as the new director of the Open Door Shelter.

"My job as a transitional coach is to help 'you' to go from being on the bottom to the top," said Okwuosa, who started his career as a correction officer. He's looking to "change that perception of shelter" by changing the structure at Open Door and adding services, including group therapy focused on anger management, social skills, life skills and domestic violence prevention.

Okwuosa began his job less than two weeks ago, but he has already taken the first step in making changes by creating a residential board, allowing those who use the shelter to "take charge of their domain." About 10 of the shelters residents were willing, he said. "This is their home. I want them to be the advocate for each other."

He expects them to form bylaws, take minutes and "have the same operations as staff." They will also instruct new residents, go through the suggestion box with him and "advocate for each other, be fair."

Okwuosa said he will do a survey to determine what group therapies to offer, according to the needs expressed. Okwuosa, the former director of ShelterNow in Meriden, predicts "remarkable" results. "A mind is designed funny," he said. "When you're bored you start thinking about things you normally wouldn't do. ... You have time to entertain that pain, that struggle, that crisis that you've had in your lives."

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