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Gordon Bolar’s past is more colorful than most.

With a record that includes several felony drug offenses and theft charges, the father of two caused “a lot of trouble” in his past, he said.

But it wasn’t until he was arrested in 2012 for possession of drugs and a stolen vehicle that he decided it was time to take the high road, he said.

“I was looking at 10 years in prison for the trouble I got into, and losing my kids,” Bolar said. “And that was the straw that broke my back.”

Bolar enrolled in the Drug Court program, where certain criminal offenders can avoid prison time by completing a drug treatment and community service regimen. The program was one of the major turning points for Bolar, he said. And in the years that followed, his life would make a 180.

Now, he has full custody of his daughters, a full-time job with the Consolidated Diking and Improvement District No. 1 in Longview and a home in Castle Rock, where he lives with his daughters and girlfriend, Michelle Reid.

“Once I could see clearly and I could see hope for a way to get out of my situation, I just (worked) hard,” Bolar said.

That work included earning two degrees from Lower Columbia College, paying off more than $50,000 in debt and staying drug- and alcohol-free for the last six-and-a-half years, he said.

And through it all, he never once thought of relapsing. His motivation to stay on the right course: his daughters, Rylee and Kodee.

“I just kept my eyes open for every program and resource I could get into to keep the ball rolling,” Bolar said. “I had constant fear of not being able to provide for my kids.”

“It turns out, they’re what saved me,” Bolar said.

This December, Bolar, 39, won LCC’s 2019 Transforming Lives award, which honors students whose lives made a change for the positive after they pursed higher education at a community or technical college. The award comes with a $500 cash prize.

“I learned how to learn, and I learned how to be grateful and give back,” Bolar said.

Bolar’s turnaround started in spring 2012, when he began his treatment with the drug court. That same year, he earned his GED and took up residence in transitional housing at Baltimore Oxford House.

Each day, he’d commute to his various drug court classes — including parenting classes, anger management and mental health and addiction treatment — on the River Cities Transit bus with “one baby on my back and another in a stroller,” he said.

His sights were set on improving his life with a college degree, just like his mom had when he was growing up.

“I watched (my mom) go from my dad passing away and our family being on welfare, to going to school and taking small jobs through the college … to getting her first new vehicle,” Bolar said. “It was definitely a major motivator.”

In 2013, he enrolled in LCC’s diesel mechanics program.

“He was like a lot of students we get. He was a little bit older and had been out in the world a little bit. We tend to see students who have decided they need to go back (to college) if they are going to do anything,” said Jim Dillinger, an automotive professor at LCC.

It’s not uncommon for students like this to struggle with relapse or turn back to their old lifestyles, Dillinger said. But right from the start, Bolar showed his serious motivation for succeeding at LCC.

“Gordon assured me he knew what he wanted and was going to move forward,” Dillinger said.

And he did move forward. By the end of his first year in the diesel tech program, Bolar had moved out of transitional housing and into his own place — and he finished the year with really good grades, Dilinger said.

“He was finally doing the things he wanted to do,” Dillinger said.

Bolar finished the diesel tech program in 2015 and re-enrolled at the college for his welding certification. Around the same time, he began helping Dillinger build LCC’s commercial driver’s license program.

By 2017, Bolar had two college degrees and was working as a college employee under Dillinger’s supervision. He stayed in that position until this summer, when Dillinger recommended him for a summer job at the diking district.

“I called Judi (Strayer, diking district manager) and said, ‘I have a guy I’d like you to take a chance on,’ ” Dillinger said. “On paper, Gordon looks a little rough ... but Judi took that chance.”

Strayer said Bolar’s recommendations from LCC “couldn’t have been higher,” and the board approved his hire for the three-month position.

“We could see the progress he had made at LCC and that he had the motivation, and we were willing to take a risk on him for a short period of time,” Strayer said. “And it turns out it lasted more than the 3-month position over the summer.”

Bolar’s work ethic, enthusiasm and skills impressed his managers at the diking district, so they offered him a full-time position as an equipment operator, Strayer said. Bolar gladly accepted the job, he said.

Dillinger, who still keeps in touch with his former student, said Bolar’s future looks brighter than ever.

“I think he’s on a path now where he can be extremely successful,” Dillinger said.

For Bolar, the success means one thing: A better life for his daughters. He said he “ground away” to find resources and mentors that could help him turn his life around.

“I love this town, and I love Cowlitz County,” Bolar said. “Whoever says they hate it and need to get out to get better should know it’s all right here. Don’t give up.”

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