Gary Stange

Picture a champion. You don’t see drug addiction, physical abuse or juvenile detention. But for Gary Stange, it’s part of what he’s both seen and overcome on the road to becoming a gold medalist in his state.

After “my parents ended up splitting, I went from grandparent to grandparent for a while, then to court to see who would get custody,” says Stange (whose name is pronounced as rhyming with lanky).

Shuttled back and forth from Mississippi to South Dakota — and from grandparents to foster homes, juvenile detention and placement homes — Stange eventually attended 21 different schools. The abuse he suffered had left its mark, emotionally as well as physically.

“I went through a hard time with that. It’s how you think the world is. And you think it’s never going to stop. But you’ve got to fight,” he says.

Stange stoically rambles through the inventory of his troubled life as if he were reviewing a grocery list.

“While in the placement home, I hit a cop and went to juvenile detention for about four months. I was only 13.

“My little brother lived with my aunt and uncle for a while. Now he’s staying with a friend. I practically had to raise him,” Stange remembers. “He was in a foster home for the same amount of time that I was, but I was a troublemaker and ended up in the placement home.”

Placement homes offer specialized care for at-risk youth.

“When we moved back to Mississippi the last time, I got into some stuff I didn’t need to … and, I just couldn’t do it anymore,” he adds. “I decided I wanted to finish my education. I realized that I had to do more than my parents have.

“So, I moved to South Dakota on my own. I was 16. I took a bus from Vicksburg, Miss., to Rapid City, S.D., then had a friend drive me back to Faith.”

Faith is the town where he now lives. When Stange speaks of it, coincidentally, hope begins to fill his voice. It was in Faith that his life slowly started to change.

“I stayed with my girlfriend, whom I’d been with for years. She’s been a real big help,” Stange says. “I stayed there for a week and had to get out. Her dad didn’t want me there. I had to find a place, and I ended up staying with a preacher for about a month in his basement. Things didn’t work out there. He was too busy to keep track of me.

“I stayed with another family for about a year. The hardest part was trying to get enrolled in high school. You need parental signatures for everything. I was really just having a hard time staying in school, because I didn’t have the signatures. I was technically not even a student.

“But I did finish and graduated in 2007, and I put myself into [Rapid City’s] Western Dakota Tech,” he adds. “I had to prove that I was independent. Now I’m going to college, and I think I’m doing pretty good.”

Stange attributes New Beginnings, a program run by Lutheran Social Services in Aberdeen, S.D., for helping him get established on his own.

“If it weren’t for them and a few of the people there, I don’t know what would have happened to me,” he says.

Now he’s in the second year of a two-year collision repair program. Disbelief registers on Stange’s face as he reflects on how far he’s come. Last year, he earned a state gold medal in SkillsUSA’s Collision Repair Technology competition.

“When I was in Mississippi, I was in a welding class and a teacher mentioned SkillsUSA,” he remembers. “I always knew what it was, but, I never thought I was going to get involved. I was never a good student. When I went to South Dakota, [my instructors] mentioned it.”

Proving them wrong

Stange joined the chapter at Western Dakota Tech, competed and made it to nationals. His motivation for not giving up? Proving his family wrong, he says. “My family said I couldn’t do it. I’m from a long line of failures.”

Yet he adds, “You’ve got to believe in yourself. You can’t let anyone drag you down. Don’t think that you have to be like your parents. There’s so much opportunity. Go with what you know, and try.

“It’s true, the sky is the limit. You can do whatever you want as long as you are willing to try.”

Since high school, Stange has had his own apartment. He’s had to work two jobs to afford the place while attending school. But he isn’t complaining. Shrugging his shoulders, he says it’s no big deal.

“I’m working right now as a structural welder as I go for my degree in collision repair. I got lucky and got a job through a school career-day event.”

Stange smirks before he launches into a lighter tidbit of his life involving his instructor, Wayne Kessler.

“My mom’s been married three times, including to a guy who was my instructor’s cousin. So I’m kind of related to my instructor. I milked the cows at my instructor’s dad’s house. And, I never knew it until I started school.”

With an air of acceptance, he offers: “I just want kids to know it’s not the end of the world if you end up like I did.”