Jeff Jardine

Not a Hollywood ending for school standout's tale

In December, I wrote about Don Lacey, a 23-year-old who was a standout speech and debate competitor at Johansen High School five years ago.

Rod Landes, his former speech coach at Johansen, heard Lacey was homeless and struggling in Modesto. He wanted to help.

They reconnected a day later, and Lacey couldn't believe his good fortune.

Landes believed — and still does — that Lacey has tremendous potential. He said Lacey was one of the best and brightest students he ever taught, and needed nothing more than a good break to get his life on track. Landes offered his services as a mentor and friend.

"He needs a father figure, and I'm willing to invest in him," Landes said in December.

I'd like nothing more than to report to you that since they were reunited four months ago, Lacey has made progress, found a job, returned to school — something positive.

The truth is, Landes hasn't heard from him for a couple of months.

These stories generally don't turn out to be fairy tales or fodder for Hollywood feel-good flicks. Too often, people simply lack the ability to seize the opportunity that could change their lives.

The streets — and jails — are full of people who can't shake their demons, who can't take advantage of breaks that come their way.

Those who do are the exceptions, not the norm, and Landes was hoping Lacey would be one of the rare ones.

After graduating from high school in 2002, Lacey moved to Phoenix to attend a technical school. But then his problems began. He began partying and smoking pot, and was kicked out of the school, Lacey admitted.

Lacey returned to Modesto and soon was living on the streets and sleeping on the pedestrian overpass by Johansen. Last summer, he was arrested for possessing a crack pipe. He entered a courtordered drug rehabilitation program in August, and was living at the Victory Outreach in Ceres when Landes began looking for him.

After my column appeared, several people who knew Lacey called Landes. They offered jobs and other benefits, hoping to give Lacey a chance to turn his life around.

Landes' church — Brethren Community Fellowship — gave $300, and he said all cash donations totaled roughly $800. He used about half of it to buy Lacey some clothes, also giving him about $80 to get his driver's license and for other expenses.

Landes kept the rest of the money ratholed away for Lacey's future needs. The money's still there, but Lacey is not.

Lacey left the Victory Outreach program in January, only a few weeks after reuniting with Landes. He didn't come close to completing the program.

"We like our men to commit to one year," said Dora Valderama, Victory Outreach's secretary. "If it takes longer, that's fine. He was coming along."

Slipped back into partying

Landes said Lacey returned to Stockton, where he was born, to live with his mom. Landes said she told him Lacey soon moved out and is now living with a cousin somewhere in north Stockton.

The cousin has no telephone, Lacey's mom told me when I called her last week.

He's not working, Landes said. He's not going to school. He's not returning messages from the person who believed in him the most. And, Landes said, Lacey's mother told him Lacey has slipped back into partying.

"By all appearances," Landes said, "he's not interested in my help. I don't know where he is, what he's doing."

When Landes spoke to Lacey's mom, she said, "'You'll have to come up and see him,'" Landes said.

That's not the way it works. When you need help, you have to make at least half the effort.

"I haven't given up on him," Landes said. "I'm definitely waiting for him to come to me and say, 'I'm ready to roll.'"

Valderama said she hopes Lacey will realize that he's turned away from the very people who can help him, and return to the outreach to complete his rehabilitation program.

"We'd welcome him back," she said. "I'm pretty sure we would."

There's still time. There are still people who want to help Lacey — something many others in his predicament often cannot say. Nobody can kick drugs for you. No one can make you succeed or even survive. They can only help you in that pursuit.

At some point, you have to help yourself, Landes said.

"The thing I've learned from this experience is that to help somebody with nothing, you have to be everything," Landes said. "I'm not going to give him a handout. But I will give him a hand up."

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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