Preventing drug and alcohol abuse as well as drunken driving is personal for almost everyone who goes through Greater Spokane Substance Abuse Council’s doors, especially Linda Thompson, the organization’s executive director.
Her son, Trevor Pierce, was 3 when he was killed by a drunken driver and Thompson has spent the past 30 years making sure the memory of him never disappears. She said his death in 1986, and the trial of the man who drove the car that killed him, sparked a career of activism and advocacy as well as state and local change.
“He took the most precious thing from me,” Thompson said. “People say, ‘Did you forgive him?’ and I really kind of set him aside and said, ‘What can I do to save another family from this?’ ”
The crash that killed her son also took the life of a intellectually disabled young woman, seriously injured her father-in-law and left her young daughter with minor injuries and years of trauma. The driver had already been arrested for DUI 17 times before the crash, and Thompson said her hope is that the state law and local prevention programs she’s championed for decades will stop situations like that before more people are killed.
“More than anything, I wish he would have had treatment,” she said, “that somebody would have said, ‘Look, instead of saying, don’t mess with him, he’s an old drunk, say ‘What can I do to help you?’ ”
Trevor’s photo goes to events with Thompson when she shares the impacts of drunk driving, and it has a place on the wall in GSSAC’s office of other victims of drunk driving and people who have died of drug overdose. Those photos, all people connected to GSSAC employees, are displayed at events like the Walk for Recovery, and are always on display in the office.
Thompson has led GSSAC for 26 years, guiding the organization through state and federal priority changes, with a staff as large as 13 and as small as three. Before leading the council, Thompson briefly worked in hospital administration and had a 13-year career in banking. She is a 1971 graduate of Central Valley High School, former Miss Spokane Valley and current Spokane Valley city councilwoman.
Thompson has run for office several times and has enjoyed public service, but said she’s known for decades that advocacy and prevention are where she belongs.
She said prevention, through educating youth, reducing risk factors and training law enforcement, and recovery have been her focus for the last several years. Thompson said repeatedly “locking people up” for drug use and DUIs will never change behavior and will make jail overcrowding worse.
Thompson has worked to destigmatize recovery, drug treatment and rehabilitation for decades, saying a conversation she had with a person seeking help for a family member made her realize she needed to expand her focus.
Several years ago, a woman called Thompson asking for information about out-of-state treatment options for her teenage son. Thompson told the woman there were treatment options in-state that were closer, but the woman said her husband was known in the community and they were afraid people might find out.
Thompson said sending someone away for treatment is far less effective then keeping them close, where they can build a support network they will see again, who can continue to encourage a lifestyle of sobriety.
“When he comes back from treatment, he will have the same friends, go to the same school, do the same kinds of things,” Thompson said, “nothing will have changed.”
She’s since worked to educate the public about treatment and recovery and said GSSAC has probably presented in front of about 100,000 people, many of whom were not court-ordered to attend. She is also a leader for the Victim DUI panel and has taught at at the 24 Hour Jail Alternative DUI Education Program.
Thompson has been hands-on with many of the council’s programs. She is a frequent speaker at Spokane’s DUI panels, where victims of DUIs and their families share their stories with offenders who have been ordered by the court to attend.
She said the DUI panel, which she helped start in Spokane in the early 1990s, is a jail alternative that helps reduce recidivism. She said one of the most difficult parts of the panel is finding people to share their stories. Once they tell their story a few times, victims and their families are usually ready to move on. Thompson said she’s been a speaker at the panel for many years.
“I didn’t want Trevor to disappear,” she said. “So I still make time to tell his story.”
Thompson is a member of the Washington Impaired Driving Advisory Council and a founding member of the Washington Association for Substance Abuse and Violence, a group that she has advocated for at the state level. She was a member of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers for many years. Thompson has advocated for lowering the legal blood alcohol limit from 0.10 to 0.08, increasing treatment options, utilizing an ignition interlock system and changing the impaired driving sentencing grid.
Tom Lloyd, a long-time substance abuse council board member, said Thompson was instrumental in starting many of the drug and alcohol programs used in the Spokane area today. Along with being a board member, Lloyd was a caseworker and liaison for drug court.
He said many of the people involved in those programs probably would still have a version of them without Thompson, but her work to collaborate, fund and lead those efforts kept them going and got many off the ground.
“It wouldn’t be anywhere near where it is today without her,” Lloyd said.
Thompson, 66, said family members and friends have talked to her about retirement or looking into other careers. She said she knows she’s not done advocating for prevention and treatment, however, and wouldn’t be ready to step down until another leader is ready to take her place. She said every time she hears about a crash where a driver was impaired, she wonders what she, and the community, could have done or what they could still do.
“I love this work,” she said. “Until we can get more people who are willing to come and help us, I can’t walk away.”