Note: This column was published on Dec. 21, 2006.
This could be the beginning of a great success story and a triumph of the human spirit.
Or it could disintegrate into yet another tragedy, like so many others. It all comes down to Don Lacey, and what the 22-year-old Modestan does with the opportunities that are his for the taking.
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My Tuesday column included a segment about Lacey, an outstanding speech and debate competitor before graduating from Johansen High School in 2002. He brought audiences to tears that year with his dramatic interpretation of homelessness, titled "Bums."
Within a few years of graduating, though, his words had become self-prophecy. He spent 10 months living on the streets of Modesto, mired in poverty and drug use, and using one of his lines from the speech when he begged for money.
"Spare a little change, your luck might change," he said.
Rod Landes, Lacey's former speech and debate teacher at Johansen, asked The Bee to help him locate Lacey. Landes said Lacey was one of the best students he'd had in 13 years at the school, and he believes Lacey can turn his life around with some help, which Landes is offering.
Shortly after the column appeared Tuesday, Landes got a call from another former student who knew Lacey's whereabouts. Landes went to see him Wednesday morning, and their story began to unfold: a young man seemingly destined for a life of poverty and instability, and the promise of a future that now awaits him.
Lacey was born in 1984 in Stockton to a mom who became addicted to drugs and a father who landed in prison. When he was 5, Child Protective Services took him from his mother, and he went to live with his grandmother, Brenda Walker. He was only 8 when they were driving in Stockton one day. His 43-year-old grandma suddenly keeled over at the wheel.
"I thought she'd just passed out," Lacey said. "I said, 'Grandma, wake up! Grandma, wake up!' "
The car bounced up onto a curb and thudded to a stop. Walker was dead, the victim of a heart attack. Lacey went to stay with a loving aunt -- one of eight kids in a household that survived on public assistance. She moved the family frequently, always in pursuit of a bigger place and lower rent, he said.
During a yearlong stretch encompassing parts of the third and fourth grades, Lacey said, he attended eight elementary schools.
"Maybe even more than that," he said. "I don't remember the schools' or the teachers' names. I made only one friend I remember -- his name was Jonathan -in third grade. Then I left (the school)."
His aunt simply had too many kids and not enough income, and he was placed in a foster home in Modesto with Louis and Katie Brown.
Louis Brown was pastor for Redemption Center Church of God in Christ in Modesto. Lacey attended Hughes Elementary School, then progressed to Teel Middle School and Johansen. It was the first time in his life he'd been with any group of classmates for more than a year.
PARTY TIME IN PHOENIX
At Johansen, he took Landes' speech classes all four years.
"He didn't really start to blossom until his senior year," Landes said. "He'd sign up for a tournament and then not show up. I thought he was kind of flaky."
Lacey lost a big influence in his life when Louis Brown, the pastor, died in 2000. Lacey matured as a senior, placing well at big speech tournaments in Long Beach and Fullerton.
"He was the only student I ever had who won awards at both of those tournaments," said Landes, who came to know Lacey well and decided he'd also never met a student with a bigger heart and greater potential.
Lacey finished 14th in the state competition and narrowly missed going to nationals, Landes said.
A week after graduating in June 2002, Lacey flew to Phoenix to start a 15-month program at a tech school. Scholarships and a Pell Grant covered the tuition, but not all of his living expenses. So he worked briefly at United Parcel Service and then at a pizza parlor, taking on a couple of roommates to help pay the rent.
The roommates, he said, loved to party. He soon joined them.
"At first, I was drinking," Lacey said. "Then I was smoking marijuana, sneaking out off campus on breaks and putting on cologne to hide it."
He fooled no one except himself. The school had a zero-tolerance policy, and booted him out. He continued to work, but delved deeper into drug use -methamphetamine and cocaine.
Lacey knew he needed to get out of there, and returned to Modesto on Dec. 19, 2005.
He stayed briefly with a friend and wanted to move back home with his foster mom, now a widow.
"She couldn't afford to help me out at all," he said. He soon became homeless, living on the streets. "I was sleeping at the bus stop on Lincoln, asking people for change to eat," Lacey said.
Others on the streets found him an easy mark, he said. He trusted people just long enough to be beaten or have his money and clothing stolen while he slept.
"I was pretty naive," he said.
Humiliated, too. At one point, he said, he tried to call Landes to plead for help, but couldn't find a phone number.
"My self-esteem was shot," Lacey said. "I slept on the overpass by Johansen. In the mornings, the kids would come walking past me, and I'd cover up or take off running. I thought, 'I'm going to die broke. I'm in hell and I need help.' I prayed, 'God, put your hands on me, so you can direct my path.' "
Lacey slept in an abandoned house near Mellis Park.
He tried the Modesto Gospel Mission, but didn't stay. He worked briefly at The Salvation Army before being fired. Lacey made some money returning grocery carts to the Save Mart on Paradise Road, but found that he could make more washing windshields in that same parking lot.
SENTENCED TO DRUG PROGRAM
When a store employee called the police in July, they found him carrying a crack pipe. He was arrested and charged with possession of drug paraphernalia. Lacey pleaded guilty in August.
He was sentenced to a drug diversion program instead of jail, according to John Goold, a Stanislaus County chief deputy district attorney.
Around that same time, Landes got a call from the parent of a former student. She told him she'd recently run into Lacey along Yosemite Boulevard in Modesto, and that he was homeless. Landes began looking for Lacey, but in all the wrong places. Lacey wasn't at the Gospel Mission. He wasn't in the parks.
He wasn't at The Salvation Army. By that time, Lacey was in the court-ordered drug rehab program at Victory Outreach, and, he said, he's been drug-free since September. He plays the drums at the church in downtown Modesto, and has rededicated himself to God.
Landes, of course, knew none of this when he asked The Bee to help him locate Lacey.
After Tuesday's column appeared, another former student who knows Lacey called Landes to tell him Lacey was at Victory Outreach. He has to craft a happy ending.
They reconnected Wednesday morning. Landes said he steadfastly believes that with the right kind of help -- which he's willing to provide -- Lacey can turn his life around.
"I'll bet my whole reputation on him," said Landes, who retired from teaching two years ago and is a motivational speaker. "I trust him and I believe in him. He has a good soul and a good heart. I believe if you're somebody to anybody, then you're a somebody. And I believe this about Don: He needs a father figure, and I'm willing to invest in him."
If only it were that simple. Landes said he'll take any help available to get Lacey back into school, into an apartment and into a job when his Victory Outreach program ends in February.
Landes believes Lacey would be a natural as a motivational speaker.
"He's got a story to tell," Landes said.
But therein lies Lacey's challenge: The story has to have a happy ending or at least a moral. Otherwise, no one will listen.
So the onus will fall upon Lacey to take advantage of any newfound blessings that may come his way. Ultimately, only he can turn his life into a great success story -- a triumph of the human spirit -or sink back into the abyss.