Standing on the stage at Bellevue's Meydenbauer Convention Center last spring, 18-year-old Gabriel Brunson tried to steady his nerves.

Standing on the stage at Bellevue’s Meydenbauer Convention Center last spring, 18-year-old Gabriel Brunson tried to steady his nerves.

There must have been 1,000 people at this fundraiser for Youth Eastside Services (YES). Brunson had never spoken in front of a group before. Heck, he still had a hard time looking anyone in the eye.

He squinted under the lights. At least I can’t see all those faces out there, he thought.

He took a deep breath. And he focused on just how far he had come.

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A YES counselor had pushed Brunson to examine his past — how it was clouding his present and threatening to thwart his future. By the end of their time together, Brunson had left behind the scared, angry, out-of-control teenager who had walked through the door. He was becoming a man.

Some people start out in life on the wrong foot and never recover. Brunson was headed that way.

He bounced from mom’s to grandparents’ to dad’s home as a young boy, amid drug use and alcoholism, abuse and neglect, according to his aunt, Kimm Ledet. At age 2 or 3, he got accidentally stabbed in the eye trying to make a sandwich when he and two siblings — all under age 7 — were left home alone. Three surgeries later, he’s still nearly blind on his right side. Child Protective Services stepped in and removed him from his home several times, Ledet said. He was also passed from home to home when his family just didn’t want to bother.

“All these strikes,” Ledet said. “And he’s only in kindergarten.”

A growing anger

When Brunson was 5 ½, it looked like he was headed to foster care. Ledet was broke and living in a Kirkland studio. She had met Brunson just three or four times. To him, she was practically a stranger.

“I’ve got nothing to give but a home and my love,” she thought. She took him in.

It was difficult from the start. Brunson has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Attention Deficit Disorder, PTSD, and attachment disorder, she said. At a young age, he had learned there was just one response to stress: anger. At whoever, or whatever, was in reach.

“From the moment I brought him in, he was breaking down my home,” she said. As Brunson grew, so did the magnitude of the problem. A high-school wrestler, he was strong.

“He threatened to kill me,” Ledet recalled of one incident. “He said he knew when, how and where he was going to do it. He was eating a bowl of cereal, completely calm.”

Three times before age 14, he went through lengthy inpatient psychiatric programs.

At age 16, he was arrested for trying to assault Ledet. Authorities released him to her custody without filing charges. But she told him things had to change if he wanted her help past 18. He’d have to finish high school. He’d have to get a job. And he’d have to get himself into counseling, rather than go because he was forced.

“He had to deal with all the root issues of why he’s living with me in the first place,” she said.

A teacher at Lake Washington High School told him about YES. The agency provides counseling and substance-abuse treatment for thousands of youth each year, and is one of 12 charities supported by The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy. It’s where he met Andrew Galbreath, who taught him that the tools he needs are already inside of him.

“Someone noticed me”

Brunson had been through his share of programs. YES was different. He liked it so much he’d ride his bike there in the rain.

“Everyone there wants to talk to you,” he said. “They want to know how your day is going because they really want to help. It’s like, holy crap, someone noticed me.”

Galbreath had Brunson write about his past. Week after week, they’d read the stories together.

Kids who have experienced trauma, Brunson explained, come up with all sorts of explanations for what happened to them: that it was their fault, for instance, or it wasn’t that bad.

“When you start reading it aloud,” he explained, “you realize you have every right to feel the way you do.”

But this was no counterproductive “pity party. That’s blaming everything on your past — I hit you because I’m angry about what happened with my dad,” Brunson explained. He began to realize that’s not the way to make it in the world.

True enough. But anger like Brunson’s is visceral and ingrained. How do you unlearn it?

Galbreath taught him about the tools — tools that were already inside of him. For instance, Brunson liked to read and skateboard and listen to music. Those are the things to turn to when he was feeling angry.

“These small little tricks have kept me out of a lot of trouble,” Brunson said. “Stopping and thinking about what you’re doing. I’d rather be reading a book than sitting in juvie.”

Slowly, he began to learn how to deal with people, how to make friends and make amends. He graduated from high school and got a job doing maintenance at an office park.

“It’s a lot of light bulb changing now, I’ll be honest,” he said. “But the whole team is teaching me.”

Without YES, he wonders whether he would have even finished high school.

After about a year, Galbreath told Brunson he was taking a new role at YES, focusing on a different population, and he wouldn’t be his counselor anymore.

“I was upset,” Brunson recalled. “Then I thought, I’m really happy for you. You’re going to help other people, and other people get to be helped.”

Galbreath had said Brunson was ready to navigate the world without him.

“Well, maybe I am ready,” he thought.

“He’s a whole different person,” Ledet confirmed.

“A lot of kids like me”

At the Meydenbauer fundraising event, Brunson had a prepared speech. But under those stage lights, he tossed that aside.

“Don’t donate because of me,” he recalls saying. “Donate because there’s a lot of kids like me. You do this because there’s that kid sitting alone at the lunch table who’s lonely and cries himself to sleep every night. That was me.

“There are kids who have gone through worse stuff than me … Other kids need to know I’m a survivor and you don’t have to rely on your past excuses.”

Short and sweet, the speech came from the heart. As he looked out on the crowd at the end, he was stunned to see them rising. Gabe Brunson got a standing ovation.

And Galbreath was the first one to leap to his feet.

News researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.

Maureen O’Hagan: 206-464-2562 or