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  • Amy Payne, CPS

From Then Til Now...Earl Hillsberg

Earl is a man whose journey could be a movie on Hallmark Hall of Fame. From the beginning of his life, when his mother’s life was violently taken from her, moments before he was born, he has had many traumas to survive and survive he has.

Earl’s heritage is that of First Nation North Americans. Shortly after his birth, he was adopted by a German family who instilled in him, love, loyalty, and duty.

His favorite childhood memories were of joy filled family get-togethers at his grandfather’s farm. Motor cross, hunting and fishing filled his summers. He loved to hang out with his grandfather who loved him unconditionally and told him to “Never let the sun set on your wrath.”

He knew that Earl was angry inside before Earl knew. Earl’s anger stemmed from the circumstances of his birth.

At 13, Earl started using drugs and alcohol to cope with his anger. This led to many hindrances during his teenage years.

Fast forward to April 28, 1985. Earl was at a party at his cousin’s house when he and another man started arguing over a bottle of beer. A gun was drawn and a struggle for his life had ensued. The fight became a fight to stay alive and the gun went off accidentally. A shot was fired, and the man fell to the ground, dead.

Earl was sentenced to a natural life with parole in Leavenworth, which is a maximum-security federal penitentiary.

The horrors that he witnessed and the abuses, including being stabbed, that he endured had begun.

Earl did not anticipate that he was ever going to get out of prison, so he began to write. He had used drugs to the point that he could not even talk. He found that his writing helped him transcend the prison walls. “Writing basically saved me.” He took college classes and while still in prison he became a published writer. Here is a poem that he wrote about recovery:


No uniform save prison blue/khaki

I’m no authority not a preacher

Crystal sky thankful, only father God

The alpha/omega has changed my life

By Earl Hillsberg

In prison, there was also drugs and alcohol and Earl did not get sober until 2002 when he came to the realization that he could get out. He was worried about his parents and wanted to see them again before they passed. Unfortunately, they passed away prior to his release.

Earl got out of Leavenworth in 2010. He continued to stay sober until 2012 when his girlfriend offered him a beer. He thought, “One beer can’t hurt.” That one beer was enough to start a downward spiral and he ended up back in prison in 2013.

Looking back, Earl says “You can’t compromise when it comes to sobriety. You are never cured. It is something that never goes away.”

He didn’t understand at the time, what was a message from AA, “you start where you left off in addiction when you use again. It only takes one”.

Earl was released in 2014 and moved to Green Bay. He was homeless and only had a few dollars to his name. He got a job and moved into a transition house.

In 2015, his parole officer requested a drug test. It came back a false positive due to an illness and a medication that the doctor prescribed. He was sent to jail for 9 months while they had to straighten it up in court.

Earl got out in 2016 and continued to use. Again, his addiction took over his life. He ended up facing another charge. It was for operating a vehicle without the owner’s consent.

While he was in prison this time, he saw a psychologist and they worked through some of his issues in a unique way. His healing came through literature again. He had read a book titled "Man’s search for meaning”, by Victor Franko. Victor was a holocaust survivor and public speaker on trauma. “Even in traumatic situations, there is meaning.”

Earl got out again and has been sober for 8 years. He has this message for anyone who is struggling with their addition, “One will not make if one does not forgive and love oneself.”

There is no compromise when it comes to sobriety. Sobriety is self-care. He has found that he loves to help people, so he came to The Gathering Place and has been sharing his message. Now he is employed here and is sharing his gifts. “Find a place where people believe in you.” “At The Gathering Place, people believe in recovery”.

Come to The Gathering Place to find serenity. “One has to be whole to be healthy.”

Earl facilitates Healing Through Literature on Thursday’s at 11:00 a.m. at The Gathering Place.

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