At Main Street Marketplace, Joseph Zacarolo enjoys a second chance – Salisbury Post

CHINA GROVE — As the judge read his sentence aloud in the Winston-Salem courtroom, Joseph Zacarolo began to make mental calculations.

It quickly converts months to years.

“Twelve times 10 is 120,” Zacarolo said. “And 120 times two is 240, so that’s 20 years of rights there. I just stopped.

On December 20, 2006, the then 22-year-old was sentenced to approximately as many years in prison as he had been alive. Zacarolo was found guilty of a number of serious charges, all stemming from a violent incident that had occurred the previous year. At the time, Zacarolo justified his actions by telling anyone who would listen that he did it to get revenge on a loved one. He considered himself a hero.

After the judge handed down the crushing sentence, he asked Zacarolo if there was anything he wanted to say in court. Zacarolo leaned forward.

“No,” he said dryly.

Zacarolo spent the next 14 years of his life in several federal penitentiaries. When he left confinement in 2020, the 36-year-old started from scratch.

Zacarolo discovered a new purpose at Main Street Marketplace and Meeting Place, a non-profit organization based in China Grove that focuses on improving the community by providing a place for people to meet and grow. In addition to a fair market that offers healthy, local food on a pay scale, Main Street offers classes that help people reintegrate into society after incarceration or recover from drug addiction.

Zacarolo has taken on a leadership role on Main Street, teaching classes to people like him looking to make the most of another opportunity.

“I’m going in the right direction,” he said.

Difficult start

Zacarolo was born in Stamford, Connecticut, but grew up in nearby Bridgeport. In the mid-2010s, the city topped Bloomberg’s list of the county’s wealthiest areas. Zacarolo didn’t see the city through this lens.

“The part of Bridgeport where I come from, the (millionaires) don’t live there,” Zacarolo said. “It’s a very low-income neighborhood. Lots of crime, gangs, drugs.

When her grandmother saved enough money cleaning houses, she moved to the Kannapolis area and bought some land. At 14, Zacarolo moved in with her and started school at Corriher-Lipe Middle. This decision was intended to help him escape from the potentially dangerous environment in which he had grown up.

Almost immediately, he didn’t fit in.

“I was poor. I was embarrassed,” Zacarolo said. “The clothes I was wearing weren’t the best and you either have to accept it or you don’t. And I adopted it.”

He found his niche as the “cool kid” who cut classes.

It got him in trouble again and again. Zacarolo spent a month in a youth detention center near Gastonia after a violent altercation with the school security guard. In ninth grade, Zacarolo was not enrolled at South Rowan High School because he missed a lot of class time. With time off and no college future to speak of, Zacarolo started working at a restaurant in Mooresville.

Just a teenager, he often found himself playing bouncer at the bar and grill.

“They liked to stay open until noon or 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays,” Zacarolo said. “So 16-year-old Joe found himself at odds with grown, drunk men.”

A fight with several customers resulting in a broken car windshield led to Zacarolo’s first real encounter with the criminal justice system. It also caused him to leave home. Zacarolo moved in with a girlfriend and started a family. But without a high school diploma, he struggled to carve out a career.

“I am a high school dropout. I have no recorded academic achievement. I have no marketable traits,” Zacarolo said. “I found myself going from a factory job to a factory job.”

Zacarolo was arrested again a few years later on much more serious charges after participating in an attack on a Kannapolis home. Zacarolo was released on bail, but he quickly lost control of his anger and was charged with destruction of property. He was homeless for a while, living in his car in the grocery store parking lot.

“I saw my life deteriorate,” Zacarolo said. “I lost everything.”

Life inside

Zacarolo began his sentence in a medium-security prison in Bennettsville, South Carolina. He remembers the violence he witnessed among other inmates.

“People were stabbed, people were beaten,” Zacarolo said. “Fortunately no one died when I was there.”

At first, Zacarolo wasn’t interested in rehabilitation. He was just focused on getting out of it without too much trouble.

“I didn’t have a good attitude back then,” Zacarolo said. “To be frank, I looked down on a lot of people.”

Over time, his attitude changed.

“Even with my bad mood in Bennettsville, I still realized I had to do something with my time,” Zacarolo said.

Zacarolo enrolled in continuing education classes and began studying math, politics, and law, paying attention to the same subjects he had neglected in high school. Exercise has become an equally important part of her regular routine. He continued to focus on self-improvement even after being transferred two years later to Jesup, Georgia prison. He got a job at the prison library and started taking algebra and English lessons.

“I really solidified my foundation for my education,” Zacarolo said.

When Zacarolo’s detention level was reduced from medium to low security, he was transferred again – this time to a facility in Petersburg, Virginia. There he earned certifications in carpentry and machine shops and began teaching classes. He took on a mentoring role in a substance abuse prevention program and began tutoring others who were pursuing their GED. He also became a certified physical trainer.

In early 2020, Zacarolo attended a virtual hearing where he was released from his sentence several years earlier due to a change in federal law. At the end of the hearing, a judge again asked Zacarolo if he had anything to say.

This time, Zacarolo didn’t let the moment pass.

“I said, ‘You know what your honor? The last time I was sentenced they asked me if I had something to say for myself and I said no. I said no because I didn’t think there was anything I could say for myself. I was a loser in high school,” recalls Zacarolo. “’Now, your honor, I’m a GED instructor. Now I am a non-residential addiction treatment specialist mentor. I am an ACE instructor. I am a Master Fitness Instructor through ISSA. I just started listing all my accomplishments. I said, ‘Your Honor, I’m proud of that. I did all of this while I was in prison.

A second chance

Zacarolo returned to Kannapolis after his release.

He heard about Main Street Marketplace and Meeting Place from Molly Frost, who was taking a Getting Ahead course. Main Street’s Getting Ahead course is a 15-week program that helps people refocus and make productive progress.

That same friend spoke to Main Street executive director Hope Oliphant about Zacarolo’s background and that he might be interested in becoming an instructor. Zacarolo and Oliphant arranged a meeting, and the rest is history.

“We’ve been rock and roll ever since,” Zacarolo said.

Zacarolo now leads the Getting Ahead and Getting Ahead after Getting Out courses. Getting Ahead after Getting Out offers citizens returning from incarceration and their families a holistic, community-based and relational approach to reintegrating into society. Zacarolo also led a yoga class on Main Street and recently started co-hosting a recovery workshop.

“The best leaders, we’ve found, are those who can truly understand participants’ life experiences,” Oliphant said. “Not only is Joseph storytelling, but he also has a sense of purpose and a passion for helping others.”

In addition to his roles with Main Street, Zacarolo works at the Carolina Center for Recovery and is a student at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. He is also on his way to earning his associate’s degree in general education.

For more information about Main Street Marketplace, visit marketandmeeting.org.

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