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Brother's death motivates Palmer Ridge's Brandon Pappas to find RAD alternative

By: JONATHAN TOMAN preps@gazette.com
September 17, 2016 Updated: September 18, 2016 at 6:55 am
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Palmer Ridge High School senior Brandon Pappas, right, speaks to junior Aaron Deloux Thursday morning, September 15, 2016 after a weekly meeting of the Pamer Ridge RAD club. The name stands for Real Alternatives to Drinking and Drugs. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

MONUMENT - On Friday night, Lewis-Palmer defeated Palmer Ridge in one of the Pikes Peak region's biggest rivalry football games.

After spending the first part of the night in opposite stands, more than 400 students from both schools spent the remainder of their night together.

At the Tri-Lakes YMCA, weaving through Bears and Rangers, Palmer Ridge senior Brandon Pappas spent all of nine words on the game ("it was a bad night to be a Bear") and then continued to explain what he calls a "monumental change."

On Sept. 1, 2014, Ryan Pappas - Brandon's older brother - and another passenger were killed in a car crash in Monument when driver Marshal Douglas Gregory lost control of the vehicle.

Gregory, who admitted in court to drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana before driving that Labor Day weekend, later pleaded guilty to two counts of vehicular homicide in exchange for the dismissal of other counts against him, including vehicular assault and driving under the influence.

In response to Ryan's death, Brandon, a captain on the Palmer Ridge boys' soccer team, looked for an opportunity to create events for students that didn't center around partying.

Brandon and his mom, Susan, came to the same conclusion: "We need to come up with a way so that no one else goes through what we did."

Brandon helped start the club .KOM (Kids of Monument) at Palmer Ridge in fall 2015. By spring 2016, .KOM had morphed into RAD (Real Alternatives to Drugs and Drinking), in collaboration with the YMCA.

RAD hosts events Friday nights at the YMCA Young Life Teen Center. Along with utilizing YMCA and Teen Center facilities, they've had a karaoke/lip sync battle, an ice cream social and an Olympic-themed night.

Brandon said Friday nights present opportunities for students, including attending parties. RAD is a by-students, for-students alternative.

"We realized that students don't want to go to a lot of things that are put on by adults or their parents," Brandon said. "If an event is thrown by a student you're more likely to get other students to go."

In May 2015, more than 350 students attended the first event, hosted then by the Ryan Pappas Memorial Foundation. Since, more than 2,200 have come to RAD events. Brandon and his team of 13 students plan and host the events.

Susan Pappas is the linchpin of about 75 adult volunteers who help coordinate RAD events, which have averaged more than 150 students.

"It's a beautiful thing to have kids come here where we know they're safe, know that they're not someplace else," she said.

She understands the impact of RAD as a student-driven group.

"By empowering younger people, we've seen what they could do," she said.

Branches of RAD have started at Palmer Ridge and Lewis-Palmer. Clubs at Discovery Canyon and The Classical Academy are in the works. Students from all schools are welcome.

Sam Kazlausky, a Lewis-Palmer senior, is one of three students at the core of organizing L-P's branch to hear ideas from its students. Some of her friends no longer want to go to parties now that there's an option like RAD.

A family friend of the Pappases since seventh grade, Kazlausky has seen Brandon grow as a person with his RAD involvement.

"After a tragedy like that, him and his mom both came back and made something so Ryan's death is not forgotten," she said.

Brandon said his brother wasn't a partier, but that when friends go somewhere, you often follow.

"If there was something else that night that had drawn all his friends, including him, someplace else, would he have ended up going? And we think that would be a no," Brandon said.

"We feel that way about most students."

Bears soccer coach Nick Odil coached both Brandon and Ryan.

Odil said Brandon continues his brother's legacy of being the hardest worker and having the best attitude on the team. Brandon scored the game-winner against Valor Christian on Sept. 10 in a 2-1 victory. But Odil points to what Pappas has done off the field as a bigger mark.

"Without Brandon here, none of that happens," Odil said. "I can't tell you how proud I am of him."

For Pappas, also a state track champion in the 1,600-meter relay, the best part is seeing fellow students get involved.

"We can't help everyone in Monument, and we can't help every student everywhere, but if we have 50 people or 100 people or 200 people come through the door, that's who we're helping on that night, that's who we're spreading the message to, and that's who we're impacting," Brandon said.

"We know that what we're doing is making a difference."

That difference also applies closer to home. Hearing Brandon share his story makes Susan proud of him and helps her to heal.

"It's beautiful in a sad sort of way, Ryan would have loved this," Susan said, looking around at students mingling, playing basketball, volleyball and foosball. "You need something that still gives hope, and this gives me hope."

Palmer Ridge graduate and last year's quarterback Isaiah Sanders helped orchestrate a graduation party at the YMCA in May in tandem with RAD.

Sanders said it would be easy, with Brandon's standing in the school as an athlete to just go along with a party scene. But he didn't.

"For him to take a stand because it means something to him because of what happened, it's amazing," said Sanders, now a freshman at the Air Force Academy.

Sanders spent his Friday night off base at the RAD event after the Palmer Ridge-Lewis-Palmer game.

"To me," Sanders said, "Brandon and Mrs. Pappas are the heroes that a community like Monument needs."

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