INDEPENDENT PHOTO: TYLER FRANCKE - Julio Olmos, 18, says he has left behind a troubled past that led him to numerous run-ins with police and problems with substance abuse that once nearly cost him his life. As he prepares to graduate and go on to college, he looks forward to a future doing what he enjoys the most: helping others.Editor’s note: Graduation season is upon us. As high school seniors don their caps and gowns, it’s easy to focus on what lies ahead rather than looking back on the road to graduation. For many, that road has been full of unimaginable challenges.

This is the first in a five-part series sharing some of the struggles faced by local seniors. These are not just stories of turmoil, but also triumph, illustrating how, even when it seemed impossible, these resilient young people were able to overcome the odds.

Last summer, Julio Olmos — then a junior at Woodburn High School — felt like celebrating that the school year was almost over. So, he and a couple of buddies went down to the Molalla River in Canby, with a handle of vodka they managed to get their hands on.

Olmos believes he drank about half the bottle before passing out in the water. Witnesses who saw Olmos being dragged out of the river into a friend’s vehicle became suspicious and called the police. An officer picked them up near Crosby Road, just outside of Woodburn, and Olmos was in bad shape.

“He saw me in the back seat, and I guess I was having a seizure,” Olmos said. “He called an ambulance right away.”

His friends had been trying to take Olmos home. His doctors told him later that he was lucky they never made it.

“They told me if they had taken me home, I would have died that night,” he said.

“So it was kind of a good thing the cop pulled us over,” Olmos continued, “because I probably wouldn’t be here right now if he hadn’t.”

Such a sentiment is typical of the now-18-year-old Olmos, who, despite his difficult childhood and troubled adolescence, seems incapable of ignoring the bright side of things.

“At the time, it was bad, or it was stupid, but maybe if those things hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be where I’m at now,” he said. “When I look back, I see all those things as experiences that helped make me the person I am now.”

• • •

Olmos grew up in a home colored by poverty and abuse. He was born in Walla Walla, Wash., after his parents and three older siblings immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico.

Drugs and alcohol were part of his life long before he had any personal experience with them. His abusive father was an addict, a fact Olmos said he never even tried to hide from his young children.

“He would do drugs in the kitchen, in the living room, in front of all of us — his sons, his daughter,” Olmos said. “I was just a little kid; I didn’t know what he was doing.”

He said his mother did the best she could, but she had to work two jobs to make up for the income that wasn’t being brought home by his father.

His family was once evicted when police raided their house and found drugs in his father’s possession. He later went to prison, and Olmos said he hasn’t spoken to him in years.

His first confrontation with the law was at age 7, when he was caught stealing a cartridge for a CO2 gun. When there were no repercussions for his behavior at home, “it made me feel like it was OK to do that,” he said.

He spiraled after he moved to Oregon with his mother and siblings in 2004. For Olmos, the next decade would be punctuated by fights, moves, gang activity, school suspensions and increasingly more serious run-ins with police.

A natural talent for running led to a track career that nearly saved him, only to be derailed twice: as a seventh-grader at North Marion Middle School, where he was kicked off the team for academic performance, and as a freshman at North Salem High School, due to injury and a growing dependence on drugs and alcohol.

“Pretty much, I just gave up,” Olmos said. “I told my coach I’m not even going to go to school anymore. It made him cry. It hurts me when I think about that.”

Olmos had two, often overlapping, problems that got him into trouble: anger and substance abuse.

“I was always angry,” he recalled. “I was always fighting. I always had black eyes, and I didn’t care because no one else seemed to care.”

After leaving North Salem, Olmos quickly became the wrong kind of acquainted with Woodburn police.

As a juvenile, he was arrested for his involvement in a store robbery and was later busted for drug use.

The charges would continue to pile up through his sophomore and junior years. He rattles them off now like someone reciting a grocery list.

He spent time in juvenile detention, in outpatient rehabilitation. He was put on probation as a sophomore, and had it extended more times than he can count.

“I’m still on probation now,” he said with a laugh.

He was on a bad road and seemed destined for a future he had always promised himself he would avoid.

And no one, and nothing, seemed capable of reaching him and setting him back on the right path.

Until last summer.

• • •

After the experience on the Molalla River in June, Olmos woke up the next day at Salem Hospital, with little memory of the night before and the inability to speak — because of the breathing tube that had been inserted into his throat.

A nurse would tell him later that he had registered a blood alcohol concentration of 0.43 percent, more than six times the legal limit for of-age drivers.

He spent two days recovering at the hospital, only to be released into the custody of his parole officer.

“I get discharged from the hospital and — bam! — the P.O. is waiting for me with handcuffs,” Olmos recalled.

He would spend the next 30 days at a juvenile detention center, followed by three months at a rehab facility in Corvallis.

He now sees the experience as a wake-up call, and a chance to start over.

“I spent my whole summer there, and I learned a lot of new things,” he said. “I just realized I needed to get my stuff together. I’m thinking about my future now. I want to live a good life.”

He’s done that and then some. Not only has he completed the requirements necessary for his graduation from Success Alternative High School, but he returned to racing last fall with something to prove.

And prove it he did, ultimately becoming the first Bulldog to qualify for the state cross country championship in three years.

“I put in a lot of work, but I think it was just heart that got me there,” he said. “I wanted to show everybody what I have in me, and that I’m not the person they think, because I know I left a bad reputation in a lot of places.”

Not only did he achieve a kind of redemption in athletics, but he found what he expects to be a lifelong passion through his participation in Woodburn High School’s Mr. Bulldog competition.

He and his teammate, Emmanuel Oropeza, were named winners of the pageant in February after raising over $1,600 for Doernbecher Children’s Hospital.

“I like helping others a lot,” he said. “It makes me feel really good when I help somebody out, just seeing them happy and putting a smile on their face.”

That’s what led him to his desire to pursue a career where he feels he can make a positive impact: that of a firefighter.

“They risk their lives for others, and that’s something I’m willing to do,” he said. “I want to give back to the community, something I couldn’t give when I was a teenager.”

After graduation, Olmos plans to study fire safety at Chemeketa Community College in Salem.

Tyler Francke covers all things Woodburn. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 503-765-1195.

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