LAKEVIEW — Bryan Guernsey’s life to date has been one rife with hard knocks.
The journey from his birth — to a 15-year-old drug-using mother 17 years ago — to his graduation from Lakeview High School, has not been easy. But you’d be hard pressed to find a young man with a better attitude or stronger work ethic.
Bryan’s story begins in Detroit, where he lived with his birth mother until age 4, at which time he was removed from the home by Child Protective Services because of his mother’s drug use. Eventually he was adopted by a couple living in Nashville, Mich., and it seemed as if everything would work out.
At age 12, Bryan’s world was again shattered when his adoptive parents divorced.
“I started getting in trouble at school and when I was 14 I was expelled for taking a knife to school,” Bryan said. “I was involved in gang stuff.”
The knife incident wasn’t Bryan’s first brush with the authorities; he’d been in trouble several times before, “because of my violence and anger issues,” he explained. The courts decided to “nip the problem in the bud,” he added.
He was sentenced to juvenile detention and from there was transferred to Wedgwood Christian Services, a Grand Rapids-based organization established to help deal with troubled children and teens.
While there, he received counseling and psychiatric care and over the course of three years, learned to handle his anger issues. When he was finally released, it was not to his adoptive parents, however. His adoptive mother, now living on her own and caring for two adopted girls, decided she couldn’t handle the extra burden.
“It’s just my mother now,” Bryan said. “She feels she can’t watch me and watch my sisters at the same time. It hurt, but I’m at peace with it now.”
Last November, Bryan moved in with foster parent and Lakeview farmer Joe Unger. It was a life-changing experience for the teen; until then, he’d never set foot on a farm, much less been involved in the day to day operations of one.
“I really like it,” Bryan said. “It gives me something to do to keep my mind focused on positive things.”
The work he’s been doing on the Unger cattle farm, in fact, has helped give Bryan’s life an entirely new direction. He plans to get an apartment in Grand Rapids this fall and attend Grand Rapids Community College where he will study agricultural science.
“After GRCC I want to transfer to Michigan State and get my degree there,” Bryan said. “I’d like to get into landscaping or agriculture. I’ve actually had some offers already.”
Bryan also credits his time at Lakeview High School with helping him turn his life around. The welcoming nature of the student body there gave him a chance to, for perhaps the first time in his life, truly feel a part of something larger than himself.
“I’ve never been to a better school than this school,” he said. “Even the first week I got here I had a whole group of friends to hang out with. At my old school, I went there for two years and only made, like, one friend. Everyone here is just so connected. I really like this school. Mr. Jensen does a great job of making this like a big family.”
Lakeview High School Principal Gary Jensen says that Bryan’s success at the school is the result of a lot of hard work and dedication on the part of the student. Jensen credits Bryan’s commitment to bettering his situation as evinced in his daily academic routine.
“Bryan came to us this year, rolled up his sleeves and has accomplished the tasks necessary to graduate on time and move to the next stage of life,” Jensen said. “I am extremely proud of all our students, but sometimes stories like these just pull at your heart when you think about some of these situations and where students come from as they get to us here at LHS.
“Many of our students here at LHS come from somewhat privileged homes and they could put more effort into the things that their parents provide for them. Bryan may not be the top student in his class, but I hope and pray that he takes the opportunity given to him by Joe and Sue Unger and runs with it to make his goals and dreams come true.”
That is exactly what Bryan plans to do from this point on. Though the road to his present has been a bumpy one, it has taught him things and given him a perspective that, for many, doesn’t come along until much later in life.
“Your life is what you make it,” Bryan said. “If I hadn’t learned anything from Wedgwood, from Joe (Unger), from my mother, I guess I would resent the life I’ve been handed. Instead I just see it as everything that’s happened to me has made me who I am now, and I like who I am now.
“My advice is don’t look back, just look forward. If you spend your whole life looking back, you just keep making the same mistakes.”