Impact Player

Football places Vanderbilt's Oren Burks in position to tackle society's pressing questions

Story by Rachel Stark
Photos by Jamie Schwaberow

Who are you? Why are you here?

Those profound questions are posed to Lyndon State students every semester in psychology courses professor Pat Shine leads in a squat brick building on a campus hanging on a Vermont hillside. For Sierra Hargrave, the queries began opening doors deep within that she had long ago sealed shut. Finally, at 23, she would peer inside.

Sierra Hargrave offers advice to her younger self, reflecting on all she has learned on her road from addiction to happier days.

At Shine and other professors’ urging, Sierra wrote — journals and essays, applying psychology’s tools to her own past so that, one day, she could help others struggling with theirs. The words spilled out over weeks, then months, and the hazy image that had long stared back at her in the mirror began to sharpen. Her writing delved into a childhood spent in squalor, growing up with a mentally ill mother who held her daughters in perpetual emotional remove, years of tiptoeing through a minefield of mental and physical trauma.

Sierra’s introspection cut into open wounds. Finally, though, she was equipped to square up to pain rather than lock it away. This time, it imparted wisdom, not agony. How childhood abuse and neglect led to depression. How depression led to bleeding wrists. How thoughts of suicide merely had been obfuscated, though not erased, by years of snorting prescription pills. How she was repeating her mother’s mistakes. How her father’s lifelong absence had left a void. How mistreatment at the hands of her mother’s male friends had only filled that space with suspicion. How grudgingly trusting a tall coach with a hiker’s frame, whose voice carried a gentle timbre and words to match, had reshaped her life.

That man, Chris Ummer — the athletics director and cross country coach at Lyndon State — introduced Sierra to running and new notions: that she was valuable, that others marveled at her silent resolve, that her future was boundless.

So for Ummer, she ran. For Shine, she wrote. And eventually, Sierra did both for herself. “I found my values,” she says. “I found Sierra.”

Those discoveries, though, have required confronting a lifetime’s worth of pain and absorbing all it could teach. Even after all she has endured, one more lesson awaits.

Sierra (with doll), her mother and two sisters rarely had chances to smile when they lived in Texas. Submitted by Sierra Hargrave

HHargrave and her sister Desiree Kepper trudged through the Texas sun, carrying couches, dressers and beds. As the 2001 school year began, their mother’s latest boyfriend told them to repeat the 50-yard march between their unit in the dilapidated Port Arthur apartment complex and a vacant one until all the furniture had been moved. For two weeks, 9-year-old Sierra and 6-year-old Desiree missed school to drag ramshackle belongings through the heat at an addict’s behest.

Their absence raised questions. Those questions led police to their home and its horrors. Eventually, two detectives appeared in Sierra’s fifth-grade math class and pulled her from school.

Their grandfather picked up the girls and their mother — catatonic from a mix of debilitating mental illnesses and drugs she used to combat them — and drove them to his home in Vermont. After two months, they had their own apartment in the tiny town of St. Johnsbury. The town’s wide main street was flanked by rows of three- and four-story brick buildings worn down by harsh winters. Their mother started to receive supplemental security income from the federal government. That support, combined with food and clothing donations from a nearby church, were enough to keep the family afloat, even after the grandfather followed through with a long-standing plan to move to Texas.

As Sierra entered middle school and hormones that fuel teenage uncertainty blended with the fallout of a turbulent past, her path began to mimic her mother’s. Grades slipped. Grim thoughts encroached. Ummer, then an assistant coach on his daughter’s middle school basketball team, noticed Sierra — the lanky, athletic girl on the team whose occasional outbursts hinted at her hunger for attention. You don’t get a lot from home, he thought.

At 14, Sierra’s primary care doctor noticed her frame had grown gaunt from an eating disorder. Then fresh wounds, carved with glass she found on the street, appeared on her wrists and legs. Physicians sent her to a mental health and rehabilitation center, where she stayed in a room with bars on the windows. Sierra received counseling there, but any progress was negated by the influence of a girl she was drawn to who had been sent to the facility to remedy a substance abuse problem. The girl exuded confidence through her expertise: She explained drugs, dosages and their effects in detail. Before she had even ingested a drug, Sierra was hooked. She emerged from eight months in treatment — and the 14 years that had preceded it — empty. “There was just nothing to me,” she says. “I didn’t know about myself.”

Back outside the center, she would try to learn. The mental issues that led her to the facility qualified Sierra for federal disability income, and the $800 per month subsidized her new life as a dropout. She called her new friend, also free from rehab, who happened to live in the same town. St. Johnsbury is one of many New England enclaves where drugs, particularly prescription painkillers, have long been bought and sold and smoked and snorted en masse.

Sierra’s new friend summoned her to a dilapidated shack under the city’s Memorial Bridge, which spans the Passumpsic River. The friend introduced her to Suboxone, a drug used to treat recovering addicts that provides its own high. Sierra pulled 8 milligrams into her nose under the cover of concrete pillars and steel beams.

“I was just in the moment,” she says. “There was no past.”

Though it caused Sierra to vomit, the first pill led to another the next day. And the next. And the next. It led to more friends. Eventually, one of those new acquaintances became Sierra’s girlfriend. The two girls fell in love, tethered to each other by their shared hobby.

Sierra first tried drugs near an abandoned building in St. Johnsbury. “You do this because something bad happened in your life, and this will take care of you,” she recalls of her mindset at the time. “That’s constantly in your head.”

Sierra and her new friends moved their daily ritual to her room. The blinds stayed shut, always. The door, padlocked.

Sierra and her partner, along with the girl who had first invited her under the bridge and a smattering of other friends, often sat in the corner of her room, faces illuminated by candlelight. Paintings with splashes of bright color adorned the walls; inspirational quotes hung next to them. For years, the group sat in that hazy chamber, the place where the pain surrounding them couldn’t sneak past closed blinds and a locked door. They smoked and snorted. Pills and cocaine.

On the cover

Then more. Then worse.

Sierra’s room rested at the end of the apartment’s long hall, separated from the rest of the home she shared with a younger sister too wary to intervene and a mother too stupefied to care. The big sister with whom Desiree once cherished spending time now ignored or berated or shoved her. In fleeting moments of amity, Desiree dared not question the drug abuse for fear of severing whatever bond remained, however tenuous.

With time, doses grew bigger, highs more elusive. Conversations dwindled, then stopped as the friends dozed off in near darkness, waking to find neglected cigarettes singeing their skin. Thanks to stricter regulations on opioids and related drugs, the street price of a Suboxone tablet in St. Johnsbury jumped from $5 to $50, nudging Sierra and her friends to cheaper, and demonstrably more dangerous, alternatives. Cocaine and pills escalated to crack and heroin. And paranoia. And theft. And mistrust. The small group of miscreants that spent much of five years in Sierra’s room turned on one another. “I was always around people,” she says. “But I was so alone.”

Sierra’s girlfriend began shooting drugs into the thin skin between her toes so Sierra wouldn’t discover her habit. Meanwhile Sierra — averse to intravenous drugs after seeing their wrath firsthand in childhood — began snorting heroin with another friend in private.

The bedroom was soon littered with needles and tourniquets and bent spoons and bloody tissues. Fingers blackened. Veins burst. Hearts stopped beating — Sierra’s girlfriend’s included — and frantically were coaxed back to life. By 18, having first tasted a high four years earlier, Sierra realized the misery she had sought to smother had infiltrated her refuge.

All the while, a voice deep within Sierra, one that had been forged amid traumas suffered under the Texas sun, refused to relent.

“You don’t want to do this,” she thought to herself every night before the drugs whisked her to sleep. “This will end.”

At 19, Sierra’s internal monologue had grown too insistent to ignore. She enrolled at a St. Johnsbury alternative school, determined to find a path that wouldn’t end in handcuffs or an emergency room. “I never had that guidance, never had a support system,” she says, “never had a hero.”

She left the small haven in the back of her mom’s apartment to move in with her girlfriend. Still an addict, Sierra battled through three years of class work in less than two. She gazed inside herself; she found her hero.

In 2013, only a few days away from graduating, a surprise bag check at school revealed used syringes in Sierra’s backpack. She had gathered some from home and scooped up several that littered her walk to school, intent on giving them to the town’s syringe recycling program. In a rush, she had forgotten to drop them off. So close to graduation, the school didn’t expel her, but she was forced to meet with a substance abuse counselor.

The close call and potential consequences, compounded by years of seeing the harm drugs had done to people she loved, were enough to force Sierra out of her habit. As she battled through withdrawal’s cold sweats and stinging nerves, the pain she had long masked with drugs returned, vivid and sharp. She remembered suicide’s temptation and the desire to assert control over her world by starving or purging. This time, she confronted those feelings rather than subverting them. She chose to endure.

The substance abuse counselor suggested college, eventually taking her to nearby Lyndon State to meet with admissions personnel. “I’m not college material. I don’t belong here,” Sierra thought as she made her first trek up a steep, winding road to the campus. “But I have to.”

Soon after, to her surprise, she received a letter saying she had been admitted. The former softball, basketball and field hockey player chose exercise science as a major simply because she liked to sweat. Sierra had neither a driver’s license nor a car, so she woke every morning in time to catch a 6 a.m. bus, its circuitous route stretching a 15-minute trip into an hour.
She yearned to make new friends on campus, but struggled. “I would try to be happy,” she says. “I would smile.”

Sierra and Desiree (left) started to grow close again as Sierra prepared to enroll at Lyndon State, where Desiree already was studying. Submitted by Sierra Hargrave

She had to — life at home had grown desperate. The girl who introduced her to drugs under the bridge in St. Johnsbury fell dead on a lawn while walking home. Many in her circle of friends, including Sierra’s girlfriend, did stints in prison, where bad habits worsened and dispositions hardened. Soon, the long bus rides home from Lyndon State, down the hill to a small crumbling apartment by the river, induced dread. Sierra returned home several times to find her partner of 10 years lying on the ground, seemingly paralyzed, barely breathing.

Still, at Lyndon State, she kept trying to smile. Sierra reconnected with Desiree, and the sisters overlapped for three years at the school before Desiree left to live with a friend in Utah. Whoever Sierra had been during the lost years locked in her room never set foot on campus, Desiree insists: “She just became such a ray of sunshine.”

But the light others saw merely masked Sierra’s lingering doubts. By the fall of her sophomore year, after struggling through class work during her first two semesters, Sierra was intent on dropping out.

To Ummer, Sierra’s professor in a class for exercise science majors that trained students in taping and wrapping joints, the smiles seemed genuine. Plus, at a glance, she looked like an athlete. Ummer sent Sierra an email a few weeks into the semester, curious if she might be interested in bringing that ray of sunshine to his team. Why me? she thought. I’m someone people notice?

Ummer didn’t realize the innocuous email he had hammered out in a few seconds would alter a young woman’s life. Sierra learned in Texas to never trust men, but Ummer’s interest seemed honest, she thought. Pure. She met him in his office after two days of trading messages. She had never even gone for a run before, she told him, but she would try. Then she reminded him it wasn’t the first time he had encountered her: The image of young Sierra snapped back into Ummer’s mind. The enthusiastic girl sitting across from him bore no resemblance to the lost one he had known years before.

She was told to run four miles at her first practice and took to the course, terrified. The internal voice piped up: It told her to finish the workout without stopping. So she did. Just as she had after her first dalliance with drugs under the bridge, she came back the next day. And the next. And the next. Soon thoughts of dropping out of school had been discarded dozens of sweat-soaked miles behind her.

On those long trails, where a verdant campus turned amber, then gray and white as winter fell, she dodged roots and rocks and trudged through snow. Snowflakes in her eyes, burning lungs and legs imparted wisdom. In her first race, she finished third on her team. In her second, she crossed the finish line ahead of them all.

Ummer wasn’t just teaching her how to set a proper pace on long runs: He introduced her to tutors, asked her about classes, lent her rides home. She realized what having a father might have entailed. “He gave me someone I could cling on to,” Sierra says. “Someone that was positive, someone that was a role model, someone that saw my difficulties and my strengths.”

A hero.

Ummer guides his team through a training session. “He has no idea at all how much he has helped,” Sierra says of her coach.

At Ummer’s suggestion, Sierra changed her major to applied psychology during the second semester of her sophomore year. She wondered if the unrelenting voice inside her, the one that had guided her out of so much decay, might be able to do the same for others. Soon, she was writing essays and journals — looking backward to guide herself forward.

Pat Shine, the psychology professor at Lyndon State, learned about Sierra’s obstacles in those papers, but the pupil she had come to know didn’t seem stifled by them. Sierra transformed into a top student, lifting her GPA from a near-failing mark to 3.4. In a campus lounge, Shine often saw Sierra tutoring and encouraging students who were struggling with their class work. And in an internship class that thrust psychology students into counseling roles in the surrounding community, Sierra was placed at a learning center in St. Johnsbury and asked to help young adults who, like her, had followed wayward paths. In that position, Sierra encountered several people from her old life. “She did it with such grace and with such respect,” Shine says. “For someone who’s entering our field of work, to have a background of struggle is an incredible plus. It’s an incredible strength.”

Sierra used the skills she was honing to try to connect with the woman who raised her. Conversations inevitably ended with mother reminding daughter that any happiness and stability she found would wash away. “That’s all she knows,” Sierra says. “I can’t resent her.”

Sierra also has put her new abilities to use on the trails and roads around Lyndon State’s campus. She has been the team captain since her second season: In addition to being the Hornets’ strongest runner, she has sought to become its emotional anchor. She has committed herself to spending practice time talking with each of her teammates, individually, no matter their pace. Sometimes Ummer has had to goad his top runner to push herself harder rather than hanging back for all-important therapy sessions. “Everybody knows they can go to her,” teammate Felisha Olmstead says. “She’s not going to judge them.”

Bit by bit, Sierra has revealed more about her previous life on the occasional rides home Ummer and teammates have offered. Not long ago, he ached when she got out of his car and walked away to a decrepit apartment near a riverbank. His thoughts turned to his own daughter, the same age as Sierra, and how vastly different her life has been thanks to little gifts and nudges. A car. Money at Christmas. Food on the table every morning and every night. Guidance and guardrails. For Sierra, rides home would have to suffice.

Kate Roy, Lyndon State associate director of athletics and senior woman administrator, has given Sierra rides home, too. On one of those trips, Roy saw an older woman, disheveled, wandering down the two-lane highway between the college and St. Johnsbury, carrying a teddy bear. “That’s my mom,” Sierra noted. Roy was aghast, which prompted Sierra to unspool some of her mother’s past difficulties and her own current struggles — particularly about being in love with someone addicted to drugs. Like Ummer, Roy loathed having to watch Sierra walk into the unknown. “How did I feel in those moments?” Roy says. “Helpless. And, at times, just completely impressed.”

Ummer, Roy and Shine point out something Sierra doesn’t realize: Lyndon State didn’t save her. “She made the leap, from my perspective, on her own,” Ummer says. “I can’t believe she made those decisions.” The imposing man with the soft voice knows he will cry when he sees Sierra walk across a stage in December, clutching a diploma.

Sierra hopes to land a job with AmeriCorps after graduation, using the experience as a springboard to the Peace Corps. She envisions herself in Africa, experiencing new cultures and encountering suffering in another corner of the world — then helping to snuff it out. Despite the clear path ahead, one she has equipped herself to follow, apprehension still plagues her. Of her 26 years, the only stable ones have been the four spent at Lyndon State. Sierra worries that after this season, once she has run her final race and taken her final class, she might lose her way. “It’s scary to just leave here,” she says. “Who are you outside of this college, this positivity, all this support around you?”

Roy once recommended that Sierra take a job as a resident advisor on campus, which would have provided free housing. She turned it down to stay with her girlfriend. Roy shakes her head when she recalls the decision, knowing the 6 a.m. bus rides and angst on evening trips home could have been relegated to memory. This year, though, after long talks with Roy and others, Sierra broke off her relationship with her partner after a decade. Sierra lives with an older sister now, one who extricated herself from the family when her sisters were much younger. Though they separated, Sierra says her ex-partner is now sober and remains a dear friend who enriches her days. With the uncertainties of life after college looming, Roy hopes Sierra doesn’t feel the tug of the past she has run so many miles to escape.

“Sometimes loving someone isn’t enough,” Roy says. “I hope she gets out of here.”

Sierra has come to regard the hilly trails on Lyndon State’s campus as a refuge. The school, which is merging with Johnson State, will be known as Northern Vermont University-Lyndon starting in July.

Sierra willed herself through a scorching fast first two miles at last year’s conference championship meet, held on a hilly course in Johnson, Vermont. She pushed to seventh place before reaching a long climb that spanned much of the race’s final stretch. Ummer watched her stride falter as she summited, rare traces of dejection and defeat on her face as other runners whizzed by. She finished 17th.

One cross country season, two college courses and a few months stand between Sierra and graduation. The finish line is so close — she knows she can’t waver when she arrives at life’s daunting next ascent.

She is determined to steel herself further. Though she has suffered more than most can fathom, she yearns for just a bit more. She understands the pain she needs is waiting for her somewhere on a cold New England trail and is ready to confront it in a race this fall. Gasping for air and legs aching as she inches past her limit, she will have to peer inward, as always.

“Why are you doing this to yourself?” she has envisioned asking, alone in the cold, searching for the answer that pain demands. She hopes, once more, the voice inside will guide her:

“To become a better you.”