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Little country store

The day she signed a contract to take over Dardanelles Community Store & Gas, nestled in a sharp bend of Old Stage Road in Gold Hill, Dawni Stockton had no idea how the store would teach her to meet life's challenges.

A single mother in her late 30s, Stockton had done everything from day care to escrow and title work, but when she found the little store listed in the classifieds, she felt drawn.

When she was crowned Miss Teen Oregon in 1985, the petite blond never could have imagined that, within a matter of months, methamphetamine would nearly destroy everything she had worked for — or that she would someday run a country gas station.

"There had always been something about this little place. I always loved 'Little House on the Prairie,' and it reminded me somehow of that," Stockton says.

"I had driven by it all the time and come in here when it was open. At one point, it had been empty for the longest time, and I just thought it really needed to be open."

On a whim, Stockton took a tour and decided she belonged here.

"I didn't have the credit to get in here, and so many other people wanted in here, too," she recalls.

"There was just no reason that I should have been the one to get it. But the owner gave me a month's free rent to get on my feet."

Inspired by the opportunity, Stockton mowed down shoulder-high weeds and hauled away trash, reopening the store July 23, 2006. She held an ongoing yard sale at the store during her first year to make money to restock empty shelves.

"We were selling household and yard-sale stuff to get the money up for the first load of Pepsi and the first load of beer," she says.

Once she was up and running, Stockton quickly realized the little store provided quite a hub for the rural community.

"It didn't take long to really care about my customers," she says. "I've got customers who bake things for me. ... You get really close to people; neighbors help each other out."

When Stockton opened the store, she still was using drugs casually, and at one point she got into a relationship with someone who was dealing drugs.

"You'd be surprised how many functional addicts there are out there," she says. "But when it finally spirals down, it goes down quick."

She now says it was a blessing in disguise when police raided the store five years ago. Stockton was not the focus of the raid and was not charged, but the embarrassment of being surrounded by police cars for much of a day was nearly a deal-breaker.

"After the police left, I said, 'I'm done. I'm closing the doors.' Everyone had come up, and they were staring. It was embarrassing, and it was downright scary," Stockton recalls.

"I thought my life was over. Then a friend said, 'No, you will stay open for the rest of this day and answer the questions people have. You'll hold your head up and do it again tomorrow. And you'll quit doing drugs.' So I did."

Daughter Jessica Hall says the raid was an important turning point for her mother.

"When she was using, she was a completely different person," Hall says. "We struggled as a family trying to figure out ways to help her become clean. I was ready to give up on her, and when the raid happened, it changed everything.

"I slowly got my mom back."

Stockton rebuilt trust with her daughters, now 19 and 15, and saved her store by taking it all "one day at a time."

Five years clean, Stockton now is a doting grandmother and focused on her future.

Diana Gibbons, Stockton's employee and best friend, says community support for Stockton has been returned tenfold.

"I think the coolest thing about this store is that the customers who were actually here when it happened have continued to come back today, and they've supported Dawni through everything she's gone through," Gibbons says.

"To see just a hopeless drug addict with their life just being torn away from them and to see how she rose above all, that is amazing."

Stockton credits her family, friends and faith with saving her life and enabling her to help others: The store hosts 12-step meetings for recovering addicts.

"I had a heart-to-heart with God one day, and I said, 'I hurt my little girls, my mom, my family. Why did this happen to me?'

"And I know now that if I hadn't gone through what I had, then I wouldn't be here helping other people and showing them proof that you can turn your life back around.

"I guess you've just got to reach the bottom before you can get back up."