Ultimately, we are not measured by what we inherited but by what we do with the story we’ve been given. Steve Pemberton’s story is one of resilience. Born to an alcoholic mother, a murdered father and discarded by his sisters, he was placed in the foster care system at the age of three and had no memory of his family. By age five he had been in so many homes he’d lost track, and the people who eventually were entrusted with his care stripped him of his self esteem, hope or encouragement.
“The teachers, nurses and doctors looked but didn’t see, heard but didn’t listen, hoped but didn’t believe.” One babysitter said of him, “This child has no hope.” They may have thought he was unaware, but he noticed people look away. They called him dumb, ugly, broken and beyond repair.
“I thought everyone had forgotten about me,” he said.
Today Steve Pemberton is divisional vice-president and chief diversity officer for Walgreens, a graduate of Boston College and an ardent advocate for equality, access and opportunity – especially for kids in crisis. Speaking at a Justice Event for 4KIDS of South Florida last month, Steve shared his story and encouraged others to be disruptive and do what’s right in the life of a child.
Neglect, abandonment and abuse
His earliest memory was a gray fog of the backseat of a car and being left with strangers. One day as the family prepared for a trip, Steve froze and would not get in the car. In his four-year-old mind, cars were dangerous because when you get in them your whole world changes. But he was too young to articulate those fears and instead of picking him up and placing him in the car, the family left him standing there on the porch and drove off. His screams and pleas for them to come back went unanswered and after a terror-filled night on the back porch, they finally returned only to chuckle and say, “Is he still here?”
By the time he was school age, Steve described the family charged with his care as “monsters who disguise themselves as human beings.”
“Now frequently starved and beaten almost daily, failed and abandoned by the institutions tasked with my care, and waiting for a family that was never going to come for me, I was beginning to lose my desperate battle… I had begun to resign myself to this fate, to accept I was to be the Robinson’s prisoner and that their world would be the only one I would ever know,” Steve said, in an excerpt from his book, A Chance in the World.
The kindness of a stranger
“You may have heard it said that all it takes is one adult to change the course of a child. I think it takes just one interaction,” Steve said at the 4KIDS event. “For me, that one person was a neighbor lady who dropped off a box of books for me because she knew I liked to read.”
“Nothing I write can accurately capture the power and timeliness of the gift Mrs. Levin gave me that day… The characters that unfolded in those books and the worlds they lived in showed me a different life, a future far beyond the pain on Arnold Street… And because of what I read, I developed the ridiculously absurd notion that one day, I too, could have a life like the ones I read about.”
In his most difficult times, Steve found comfort in prayer. “I went to church one time in my childhood. The family I was living with tried really hard to isolate me… As I walked by the altar, I saw the cross that my foster father had built for the church while he waged war on me the rest of the week, and I thought, ‘They even have God fooled.’ Sunday school was my first introduction to what prayer was: talking to God. I was bound to secrecy by my foster family. So I prayed to be safe. I prayed that my Mom and Dad would come get me. I prayed for something to eat. And sometimes I just prayed for strength to get through.”
A harrowing day
Like many kids, Steve looked forward to his first day of high school, but said in his book, “Little did I know that my first day as a freshman would be one of the most harrowing of my life.” He described the school day as “a wonderful blur of bells, new classes and faces,” but when he went to meet a friend to walk home, Steve had walked out the wrong door of the large high school building, headed in the wrong direction, and wandered for two hours trying to find his way home. He was met by an angry foster father who would not believe he’d been lost and pulled the strap off the wall, yelling, “You’re gonna tell me where you’ve been!”
Steve refused to cry, and the beatings continued longer and harder. Then the man charged with his care yanked him over to the stove, turned on the burner and placed the back of his hands over the flames, causing the skin to ripple and bubble as Steve cried out in pain.
When that did not evoke the answer he was seeking, Steve was told to get in the car and the man joined him with his hunting gear. He turned to Steve and asked, “Remember what happened to that dog a couple of weeks back?” He was referring to a hunting dog he had bought and then brought out to the woods and shot because it wouldn’t hunt. It was then Steve said he understood what he intended to do to him.
“So, I’m going to ask you again, where did you go after school?” When Steve refused to reply, the man chuckled, started the car and said, “Everybody knows hunting accidents happen all the time… I’ll say it was an accident, tell ‘em that it was your first time huntin’, ya finger slipped off the gun.”
Defiance turned to fear and when it was suggested he’d been with a girl, Steve realized he had to give him what he wanted to hear. So he slowly and reluctantly nodded his head yes. With that, the man climbed out of the car, content that he had finally gotten the “truth.”
It was then the realization hit him that he may die at the hands of these people. And no one would know. “God please,” he said. “Please help me.”
A way out
As a teen, Steve realized that college was his only escape. A classmate told him about the Upward Bound Program that provided under-resourced children with the support necessary to further their education. But for reasons unknown, his foster parents thwarted his attempts to get ahead at every turn, never acknowledging any of his accomplishments in school, forbidding him to get involved in extracurricular activities and refusing to sign the permission slip for him to be involved in Upward Bound. He found an advocate in program director, Ruby Dottin, whose insistent phone call home resulted in his enrollment. This was his lifeline.
When the foster family refused to allow him to register for the PSAT college entrance exam, Steve finally approached his caseworker regarding his experiences in the home. It would take several caseworkers and heightened abuse before his request finally culminated in his removal from the home two days after Christmas.
As a 16-year-old African American boy, Steve’s profile made placement difficult. Every call the social worker made came up empty. Finally the social worker turned to him and asked, “Do you know anyone you could stay with for a few days?”
Steve remembered a teacher in the Upward Bound Program who had once commented, “I don’t have any children, but if I did, I’d want my son to be just like Steve.”
His name was Mr. Sykes and Steve doubted he would be at his office because it was Christmas vacation, but somehow he was there and took him in. With his support, Steve would achieve his dream of attending Boston College.
Do what you can for a child in crisis
Speaking at the 4KIDS event, Steve said, “This crisis for children is not just in Florida. It’s a crisis across our country. All these kids want is a chance. Within these stories and lives is resilience. They are not ugly or broken beyond repair.”
“Don’t look at the circumstance but think of the possibility,” Steve urged. “Those entrusted with my care never thought this possible. They wrote about it in my 300-page case file. Yet this man is what’s possible when we put a foundation under a child who has inherited a tragedy.”
While his life was difficult, Steve said, “I had people in my life who did small things: the woman who gave me the box of books, the mailman who said, ‘son, keep reading.’ They gave me belief and hope and possibility. The woman who brought me that box of books is now 82 years old and I asked her, ‘Why did you do that?’ She said, ‘I did what my mother always told me to give from where I was with whatever I had.’”
“Constant cynicism pervades our country but all of us need to stand in the gap … if it is just a smile, give that. If it’s a home, give that. If it’s vision, give that. If it’s a hug, give that,” he implored. “I’ve never forgotten a kindness. It is imprinted on my soul.”
Every year in Broward County more than 4,000 children are removed from their homes due to abuse, neglect or abandonment. If you would like to help, contact 4KIDS of South Florida at 954-979-7911 or visit www.4kidsofsfl.org