Born with a learning disability caused by prenatal drug exposure, 18-year-old Gideon Linsday has struggled for the past 12 years to master what came easy to most other students.

Born with a learning disability caused by prenatal drug exposure, 18-year-old Gideon Linsday has struggled for the past 12 years to master what came easy to most other students.

He surmounted the challenge by realizing the power of helping others.

On his own accord, he started Black History Month at Ashland High School, took a leadership role as co-student-body president and worked his way out of special education classes.

He graduates Friday with a regular diploma and a mission to improve the lives of others.

"That makes me happiest, to help people," he said.

Child Protective Services removed Linsday at age 1 from his parents' California home after his younger brother, Simon, tested positive for cocaine at birth, said his adoptive mother. A subsequent test showed Linsday had also been exposed to drugs in the womb.

The brothers spent two years in foster care before Phillip and Shelley Linsday of Ashland adopted them.

Through her work as a Head Start teacher and adoption advocate, Shelley Linsday had learned there was an inordinate number of African-American children who were waiting for adoption.

The couple, who already had three natural children and adopted two Korean-born children, decided they would help fill that need.

They first adopted Gideon at age 3 and Simon at age 2.

"They were so beautiful, so adorable," Shelley Linsday said. "My husband and I were head over heels in love."

Within the next two years, the couple adopted six more children with prenatal substance exposure, expanding their family to 13 kids.

Gideon struggled with developmental delays and a learning disability.

Throughout his elementary and middle school years, he was enrolled in special education classes.

During his freshman year in high school, he continued to take special education courses and sometimes acted up in class and didn't pay attention.

"One teacher (Linda Barnett) noticed that I was not being myself and could be better," he said. "She told me you can be whatever you want to be if you put your mind to it. That helped give me the idea that I could actually be something in the future. I decided to change myself and work myself out of special education."

All but one of his classes this year are in regular education.

Barnett said it's gratifying to know she made an impression on him.

"But it's really about Gideon making good choices and finding out he's skilled with people and has incredible leadership abilities," Barnett said.

That same year he was upset to learn that Ashland High School didn't observe Black History Month, traditionally held each February.

"There was so little African-Americans in Ashland in general, and I felt no one really knew about African-American culture," he said. "I thought it would be a great opportunity when Black History Month came up to do something new for the school."

He lobbied the leadership class and administrators to permit Black History Month celebrations and didn't give up until he received consent.

Then he organized the event himself, bringing in speakers and planning entertainment.

The events have been held for the past three years.

In September and October 2005, Gideon, his father and five of his siblings traveled to Biloxi, Miss., to help residents affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Toting 1,000 pounds of donations of baby formula, toiletries, construction supplies and other necessities in a caravan of four vehicles, the Linsdays gave up work and school and camped in high heat and humidity.

During their stay, they rebuilt a Buddhist temple in a Vietnamese community in Biloxi, using donations and Phillip Linsday's experience as a construction contractor, Shelley Linsday said.

"That was probably one of the best experiences of my life," Gideon said. "It made me want to help people even more."

He inherited his philosophy of helping others from his adoptive parents, who sought to ease their children's early childhood wounds by giving them pets to nurture.

"When you're not focusing on yourself and being part of a family and working to help others, it's amazing how it can help heal whatever is hurt inside you," Shelley Linsday said.

Drawing on his experiences as a child who had to live with the repercussions of prenatal drug exposure and couldn't grow up with his natural parents, Gideon tries to help others stay away from drugs through the Students Against Destructive Decisions program.

In the program, he speaks to elementary and middle school pupils about his resolve to stay off drugs. He doesn't share the details of his personal experience, but he hints at it.

"What I usually tell them is I have no need for drugs because I know what they can do to someone's life from my past, and I can get the same feeling from playing basketball. I don't really feel like destroying my life."

This year, he was elected as co-student-body president along with his best friend, Nick Fitzpatrick.

Gideon dreams of continuing his public service work by becoming either a police negotiator or a politician.

This summer, he hopes to find a job to help pay for college in the fall.

He has not yet decided between Southern Oregon University and Rogue Community College.

"I'm a people person, and I see so many problems and things that need to change," he said. "I saw problems here and made changes at the school. I'd like to bring that to another level."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or