Calling himself the true Dennis the Menace, the director of Broken Chains Ministry says he has gone full circle — from inmate to helping inmates.

By the time Dennis Shawhan entered the third grade he was smoking marijuana.

He said he became an altar boy just so he could drink the last of the Communion wine.

“Once I tried things it wasn’t so bad,” he said. “I did it because I enjoyed the adrenaline rush.”

When he moved on from the sixth grade at Rimer Elementary School to Innes Middle School in Akron, his friends had elevated to heroin.

“I never did that, to me that was a junkie, that was an addict,” he said. “There were lines that I would not cross and that was one of them.”

He soon discovered what he called a talent.

“I had this gift. I could copy anybody’s handwriting, so if you brought me an envelope I would make sure you got signed out of school and it would only cost you a joint or two,” he said. “Forgery was my thing.”

Shawhan said he got all that craziness out of his system and graduated from high school. He landed a job as a warehouse manager for 3M and a buyer for the company.

He left there and worked for a company in Cuyahoga Falls as director of purchasing, handling a $25 million budget with all the perks. By then he was married and had two children.

His perfect world fell to pieces when he came home from work one day and his wife told him she was leaving him and the children.

“I had no idea of how to handle that. I grew up in a two-parent home from a hard-working, blue-collar, middle America white Catholic background,” he said. “This isn’t what I bargained for when I got married. I couldn’t handle it emotionally. I turned to drugs.”

He had a friend who liked to rebuild cars as a hobby so he occupied his time helping him. But this friend also had another hobby — he sold powdered cocaine.

“I started snorting cocaine. I already had a drug past so it was easy to fall back into that pattern, then one day he cooked up some crack,” Shawhan said. “My life changed for the worst. I became the person that I never wanted to be. All my integrity and reliability went right out the door. I became a thief, a liar, cashing in my life insurance, whatever it took to maintain my habit. In about seven months I had a $1,000 a day addiction, spending $30,000 a month smoking crack.”

Shawhan was fired from his job and arrested for extorting $12,000 from his employer.

“I was into white-collar crime,” he said. “I was facing felony theft charges on forgery and theft.”

Shawhan’s boss went to court and asked the judge not to send him to prison, but to get him some kind of help because his actions were out of character.

“The court gave me probation and three months later I was charged with 23 third-degree felonies for forgery and was facing 41 years in the penitentiary. The prosecution wanted 18 months for each felony, consecutive sentences for each felony times 23,” he said. “I lost custody of my children and the respect of my family. They wanted nothing to do with me.”

Finding faith, sobriety

“So here I am in the Summit County Jail and my life was over, so somebody invited me to come to a worship service. I said, ‘Yeah right, whoever heard of church in jail.’

“I went that night and this inner-city pastor preached and that night I was converted to Christ, in April of 1993, and I’ve been serving him ever since. I’ve had 22 years of sobriety — no drugs, no alcohol, no nicotine.”

When he got out of jail he did three years probation and 10 months of house arrest and was accepted into a Christian rehab center in North Carolina.

“I was blessed. I never saw one day in the penitentiary, unbelievable,” he said. “So as soon as I got off of probation in 1996, I started to volunteer to go into the jail to minister. That’s the turnaround that takes place in someone’s life and that’s my passion for this.”

He has ministered to inmates in Thailand and India.

Shawhan also met the love of his life in church, Tamela, and they’ve been married 12 years. She has a similar past and the same passion. She ministers to women at Oriana House in halfway or transitional houses and helps them with basic clothing and interview clothing.

Challenges at jail

Maj. Dale Soltis, commander of the Summit County Jail, said Broken Chains Ministry has been an integral part of jail operations ever since the doors of the new jail opened in 1990.

“They do a good job providing services to the facility that we wouldn’t have, like their free eyeglass wear program, passing out Bibles and religious reading materials. They help us meet the minimum standards under state law. They are the liaison with all recognized religions.”

Soltis said the cutbacks came in 2009 when the economy took a turn. Recreation disappeared with no gym time, no library visits and no more full worship services on Sunday evenings with 22 local churches coming into the jail on a rotating basis. There used to be five different services, with about 350 people in chapel every Sunday in the gyms.

Now each of the five chaplains conducts a Bible study/chapel service in a classroom with a maximum of 24 people, which is also the minimum standard.

Changes in the jail’s visitation hours have also had an impact as the limited hours fall at the busiest times for pastors.

“Clergy can call us and we’ll go see people for them, since we’re already on the inside,” Shawhan said. “We will make ourselves available or clergy can get a layperson on their staff to represent their church and we’ll train them on the ins and outs of visitation.”

Despite these challenges, Shawhan is not about to give up on a program that he says saved his life.

Marilyn Miller can be reached at 330-996-3098 or mmiller@thebeaconjournal.com.