- Associated Press - Saturday, October 31, 2015

MERIDEN, Conn. (AP) - Since returning from a two-year tour of duty in Iraq a decade ago, Rafael Castro has been trying to piece his life back together. Not long after his return, Castro, of Meriden, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. In April, he was laid off from his job at a car dealership.

While talking to a counselor earlier this year, Castro was introduced to Mike Zacchea, director of UConn’s entrepreneurship bootcamp for veterans with disabilities. Castro was accepted into the program, which includes online coursework and a 10-day bootcamp that provides business training for post-9/11 veterans with service-connected disabilities. Castro served two years in Iraq after enlisting with the Army Reserve. He was 32 years old when he returned to Meriden in 2005.

After attending the bootcamp earlier this month, Castro said, he has a new perspective on life, as well as the confidence to pursue his own business venture.

“I can’t say it enough, that program has given me a lot in a short period of time,” Castro said.

On Tuesday, Castro stood inside the former home of Angelina Grocery, 103 Colony St., which he plans to turn into a delicatessen. Castro purchased the store in September after a chance meeting with the former owner at El Condado Grill, which is located next door.

The small grocery store was the target of multiple drug investigations in the past year, leading to several arrests. Castro said he hopes to change the public’s perception of the store.

Recently, he was scolded by several motorists driving by the store. To combat the stigma, Castro is renaming the business Mr. Lee’s Deli. He plans to operate a traditional delicatessen that delivers and caters.

“I see nothing but potential,” Castro said. “I see the potential for downtown Meriden.”

Castro helped run a delicatessen owned by his mother in New Haven that has since been sold. A frequent customer gave him a nickname, Mr. Lee, which stuck, Castro said.

By Wednesday, Castro removed the Angelina Grocery sign. Once he can afford to, he will replace it with a new sign for Mr. Lee’s Deli. For the time being, Castro is operating the business as a grocery store. Castro said he is looking for financial assistance to purchase the equipment and supplies necessary to start running the deli business he envisions. He already has a catchphrase for the deli, “heroes for heroes.”

While Castro works to establish his business, he will have continued support from UConn’s entrepreneurship bootcamp for veterans program. The program provides mentorship for a year after graduation, Zacchea said. Business experts and graduate students from UConn’s school of business mentor program graduates on how to start and run a business, he said.

“It’s comforting knowing I’m not alone,” Castro said.

After Castro was accepted into the program, he participated in online class work before attending a bootcamp course at UConn from Oct. 1 to Oct. 10.

Initially, the program was intimidating, Castro said, because he isn’t computer savvy. At one point he considered leaving the program. But with the support of Zacchea and his classmates, who came from a variety of military backgrounds, he was able to graduate, Castro said.

“Just as in the military, everyone helped each other and got through it,” he said. “I met some people that are going to be part of my life for the rest of my life.”

During the bootcamp, students developed their own business plan. Experts from several fields lectured students on different aspects of entrepreneurship. Castro said he developed a positive attitude while taking part in the program. In addition, he was able to network and access vital resources to start his business, he said.

The entrepreneurship bootcamp for disabled veterans started in 2007 at Syracuse University, Zacchea said. While working towards his master’s degree in business at UConn in 2009, Zacchea took a class with a professor who knew the founder of the program, Dr. Michael Haynie.

Zacchea, who retired as a lieutenant colonel with the Marine Corps after he was wounded, decided to start a bootcamp at UConn as a franchise for what is now a nationwide program at several universities. The first class graduated from UConn in 2010. To date, the program has graduated 135 veterans who have gone on to start 90 businesses, according to Zacchea.

“We are very proud of that,” he said.

Zacchea described the bootcamp program as “high energy, high motivation and high stress.”

The goal isn’t to finalize a business plan, but to help develop one. At the end of the program, each student presents their plan to a panel of judges, competing for a small cash prize.

“We really want to invest personally in the development of their business,” Zacchea said.

As Castro works to start his new business, “we’re now committed to helping him make it work,” he said. “I hope that we can make it work for him.”

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Information from: Record-Journal, https://www.record-journal.com

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