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Drugs, vandalism and illegal activity used to be a big part of Gary Pierce's life.

But when a close friend died of a drug overdose, Pierce decided to take a good look at his life and the lives of the people around him. He decided he didn't want to end up like the drug dealing, high school dropouts he'd been hanging around with.

"I hurt people - I do admit that - but life is still going on," said Pierce, who has been drug-free for almost three years. "The only thing you can do is change it."

"And personally, I like myself clean," he added.

So do the others around him.

"I just can't believe what he used to be - an angry, loud user," said Karen Schoenfeld, lead supervisor for LaCrossroads, the La Crosse School District's at-risk charter school.

Schoenfeld said she nominated Pierce for the Tribune Extra Effort Award because he has transformed his life and become a quiet, respectful, hard-working and honest student who serves as a role model for his peers.

Pierce has a cumulative grade point average of about 3.30, and he is graduating early. He said he plans to attend Western Wisconsin Technical College, then a four-year college so he can become a police officer and help people like himself.

"He's come so far," Schoenfeld said. "You just can't believe he was like that."

Pierce, 19, said his trouble started about the time his parents divorced. His brother went to live with their dad, and Pierce lived with his mom.

"We lived in this one-bedroom place," he said. "We were very poor - living off raman noodles."

He started smoking cigarettes about that time. He said he and his friends were drinking, fighting and destroying other people's property, just for fun. That was the summer after sixth grade.

"I was 'troubled' as you would say," Pierce said. "It basically let into a lot of other drugs."

Pierce and his mother moved a couple times. He failed seventh grade twice.

"There were a lot of nights I never showed up at home," he said. "Teachers hated me."

His mother called police when she found several bags of marijuana in their home. He was arrested, taken to jail and juvenile detention, then he was told he either had to move in with his father or live in a halfway house.

"He (his father) did take me," Pierce said. "I was grounded for about two years. I wasn't allowed to leave. I wasn't allowed to do anything."

But he was back to his old habits after a few months.

"If you really don't care, it's not going to faze you," he said.

The death of a close friend changed all that.

Pierce began to look around him. Many of his friends were high school dropouts; one friend also was pregnant; and another friend was in jail charged with rape. Pierce realized he didn't want to become an unemployed adult who hung out with troubled teens.

He had been in LaCrossroads since his freshman year, and the teachers there were trying to get him to change his life, too.

"I've never had a teacher talk to you and get in your business," Pierce said. "That helped, too."

Pierce decided to quit drugs. Even though he still is offered marijuana on a daily basis, he said it wasn't hard to stop once he made the decision. His friends have since accepted he's clean.

"It's like second nature," he said. "Everybody knows I don't."

Cigarettes are his only remaining addiction.

Meanwhile, Pierce keeps busy working 20 hours per week at Adam's Rib restaurant and volunteering for every LaCrossroads project available. He manages the school store, helps supervise the classroom when the teacher isn't there and has been a peer helper for several years.

He said he considered a career in psychiatry before deciding to become a police officer.

"Basically my goal in life is to actually help somebody - that's what I want my job to be," he said.

"I've lived that life. I can help them."

Anastasia Mercer can be reached at (608) 791-8256 or smercer@lacrosse tribune.com.

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