Maury Buffum grew up in Elma and ran a family farm in Hamburg before booze and crack cocaine landed him in jail.
Doug Schroth worked as a bouncer and bar manager in Rochester and Cleveland until his drinking got so bad he couldn't hold a job.
Ivan Tsygyrlash, who grew up in Riverside, tried Suboxone a co-worker gave him in his late teens, turned to heroin in his 20s and almost died.
All three stumbled through years trying to stay clean.
Until they found structure, healthier guidance – and religion.
"I went through a healing process," Schroth said. "I got to the root of what was going on, where it started and where my drinking got worse. I was set free."
He, Buffum and Tsygyrlash are among the growing number of men who have transformed themselves – along with 50 acres of landscape – at the Total Freedom program in Darien Center, about 25 miles east of Buffalo.
They've plunged into farm and construction work, Bible study and a deep determination that if they put God at the center of their lives, they can overcome their demons.
Many of these men tried other residential recovery programs that didn't work. The Christian-based farm doesn't work for all of them, either. About one in three who start the program finish. But several of those who've stayed clean after going through a nine-month process say their bodies, minds and spirits have forever been changed.
"It's not about the addiction. It's about a lifestyle change. With that change, and through the spiritual aspect of it, things get better," said John Kula, who along with his wife, Victoria, bought a former motel and surrounding horse farm more than five years ago along Broadway in Genesee County, and started their Total Freedom ministry.
It's one of several reasonable models, said Dr. Richard Blondell, professor of family medicine and vice chairman of addiction medicine at the University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
Education, socioeconomic status and the addictive substance or substances all figure in to success rates, Blondell said, and, as is the case with quitting smoking, many who succeed need to try several times. He estimated that about 30 to 40 percent of those who fall into addiction recover over the long run.
Blondell shared key findings of a review of physicians in Kentucky during the late-1990s who had been addiction-free for five years. He helped conduct the review before coming to UB. Nine out of 10 doctors said 12-step spiritual programs, including Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, were the most important part of their recovery; 5 percent said it was religion, and another 5 percent gave various reasons.
Twelve-step programs focus on giving control to a higher power as people understand one. That leaves room for many religions and beliefs in programs where those with addictions bond through a shared desire to stay clean, Blondell said.
"I don't pass judgment on any program if it's working for the individual," he said.
Total Freedom starts with the Christianity, John Kula said.
"If someone is of that belief and understanding, then they have an opportunity to come here and there's a chance to learn more. Either it will come to them or it won't. Usually in the first couple weeks, it's pretty evident" that they are likely to succeed.
There are beds for 15 men on the Darien Center property. The Kulas welcomed some women when they started, and may do so again in the new year.
The program was founded in 2001 outside Orlando by Pastor Guy Iannello, once a major drug dealer in Western New York, who was paroled after a life sentence for cocaine sales before becoming reborn in Christ.
A structured schedule, healthy meals and strict rules set the tone. Alcohol is prohibited on property; smoking, too. Random drug tests are required for those who wish to stay.
The men spend the first several weeks building a better relationship with God as they go through withdrawal. The staff works with them to arrange temporary Social Services support and look for jobs. Much of the money secured helps pay for food, lodging and other program costs. Donations cover the rest of the expenses and always are welcome at totalfreedomny.org.
Those who graduate are welcome to stay on in one of a dozen converted motel rooms in what has been renamed Shiloh Country Acres. Those who choose to do so serve as role models and mentors for those newer to the farm.
Graduates, and the general public, are welcome to join these men for 2:30 p.m. Sunday chapel services on the second floor of the Total Freedom Farm barn.
"It's hard not to find Jesus here," said Tsygyrlash (pronounced Tiger-lash), 23, the Riverside native who will soon complete the program.
A familiar path
John Kula knows what the men who arrive at the doorstep are going through. He grew up in the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls and worked as a lab technician at DuPont for more than 30 years before he retired about two years ago.
He was athletic as a boy until an injury cost him some vision in his right eye at age 13.
"After that, I gravitated toward the bad guys," he said. "At an early age, I drank a lot, did a lot of drugs and got in a lot of trouble."
Military service "straightened me out a bit," he said.
His life direction changed almost 15 years ago, a few months after he met Victoria on Match.com. He was part owner of a mixed martial arts studio in Niagara Falls at the time, and a fellow MMA enthusiast invited him to a "believers' conference" on the Canadian side of the falls. Victoria, a Manitoba native who was living in St. Catharines, Ont., at the time, encouraged him to go.
"That weekend changed the focus of my life," Kula said. "I learned about God and how the spiritual aspect of things can change a life. I've never looked back, and am trying to pay it forward."
Kula married Victoria on New Year's Day 2004 "and started growing with God." He kept his day job but the new couple also took a growing interest in the ministry. They began attending services in Niagara Falls and Hamilton, Ont., and took online Bible classes. "It taught us a lot and gave us a foundation for what we're doing now," Victoria Kula said.
John Kula was ordained about a decade ago and opened their own church, The Secret Place Christian Fellowship, in Niagara Falls, Ont. They ran it until 2012 – providing donated clothing and free coffee – before they turned it over to another couple as they began to lay plans for Total Freedom Farm.
He also started doing jail ministry during those years, first in Thorold Detention Center in Ontario and, starting six years ago, at the Niagara County Jail. He continues to visit inmates in Niagara County every other week and, last January, became chaplain at the Genesee County Jail.
Kula sees common themes in the stories from those he visits.
"There are scars from childhood that have never been healed," he said. "Sometimes, it was lack of a daddy, abusive dad, abusive mom. Sexual abuse or physical abuse is involved. That's generally the bottom line."
Some who come to the farm often share similar tales, Kula said.
"What I've also seen in the last couple of years that's alarming to me now is injuries, which I can relate to. When I got hurt in martial arts, I got put on the painkillers. You get addicted to them. A lot of younger men that I've talked to who got addicted to opioids and then got addicted to heroin, if you trace it back, it started with an injury, when they got put on hydrocodone or Percocet… As soon as your brain connects with that opioid, you want it more than anything."
When men in the program go through detox on the farm, the Kulas encourage them to get through four or five days. They tell them, "You watch, you're going to realize the pain wasn't as bad as you thought it was."
"Give them three weeks," Victoria Kula added, "and they feel fantastic. When they can cross over, it's a huge hurdle."
A grateful flock
Those who succeed during the first few weeks do so through a regimented program run by a man who served in the Army from 1976-82 and later in the Army Reserve.
The mind, body and – particularly – the spirit must be addressed when looking to overcome addiction, the Kulas said.
"With the spirit aspect, we believe God has created us and can heal us. Through that, though, we have to take care of our body," John Kula said.
He sets the standard. He wakes at 4:30 a.m. daily and spends time with Schroth, the former bouncer and bartender, who has become manager at the farm. Kula then runs 4 to 5 miles, usually at nearby Alden Park.
Everyone is up by 6 a.m. for prayer. They run or walk a loop trail on the farm that program participants laid and have improved using more than 120 tons of stone. A shower and breakfast come next; followed by an 8:30 a.m. communion service that includes five or six contemporary worship songs. Bible lessons then run for three hours in the 2,200-square foot Freedom Hall, completed by those in the program last summer.
The hall, just north of the program living quarters, includes congregating and dining areas with couches, tables, table tennis and a small office. The ministry bought the used furniture; the men stripped it down, sanded, and re-stained it. An infrared sauna in the bathroom helps with detox.
An hour lunch comes at noon, followed by three to four hours of work or volunteer time in the community. After dinner at 5, the men gather to discuss their day and focus on Christian-based activities. There is no broadcast TV here; though they can watch family-friendly DVDs approved by the Kulas. Quiet time starts at 9:30 p.m. and lights go out at 10:30.
Discipline extends to healthy living and eating.
When you pull onto the property, a no-smoking sign is among the first things you see. Such an admonition is common in many residential addiction treatment settings.
"One thing I've noticed over the years is that smoking is a catalyst to all the other addictions," John Kula said. "If someone goes back to the smoking, 90 percent of the time they're going to go back to their other addictions. That's the addiction that nobody thinks about because it's legal – but it does kill you."
Nutritious food and drink also are emphasized. Fruits and vegetables – including some grown and tended in a garden on the farm – are among staples. Eight chickens help supply the program with eggs. Total Freedom bought four Nigerian dwarf goats earlier this year to help with the milk supply. Lean proteins, the natural sweetener Stevia and non-sugary beverages fill out the bounty.
"Some of the unhealthy foods – with the sugars – are just filling one addiction with another," John Kula said.
Many of those in the program arrive sick, said Victoria Kula, a nutritional consultant.
"They haven't taken care of themselves," she said. 'We want to start feeding them healthy, nutritious food to address the physical aspect. When your body is not feeling good, you're out of kilter. Depression and anxiety comes in."
Exercise also is part of the plan. Indoor bikes and treadmills, along with a weight room, sit on the ground floor of the barn.
The property always is a work in progress. The lower level of the barn also includes feed for the livestock, an ATV, tractor (with a brush hog attachment), wood chipper, rototiller and several lawnmowers – one of them a rider. "It's a large property to mow," John Kula said. "Everybody's out there."
Men also tend the growing trail system, which runs through several woodlots and includes several handmade benches as well as the Secret Place, a small cabin for those well along in the program to camp out for Bible studies.
The Total Freedom program is open to those aged 18 and over. Most participants range in age from their late 20s into their 50s.
"Most people end up leaving," John Kula said. "But the ones who have graduated, the success rate of staying clean is about 85 percent. It's about doing it."
Almost all those on property have come voluntarily, though some are court-ordered.
"They can leave if they don't want to be here…," John Kula said. "A mindset has to be taken to understand a change in lifestyle. That requires discipline. Discipline is vital. So is a level of humility, living life humble."
That gets coupled with a spiritual healing, Kula said.
"God, Jesus. Understanding where we came from and who he is, and how much blessing is in our life if we follow his way."