A Chance in the World: An Orphan Boy, a Mysterious Past, and How He Found a Place Called Homeby Steve Pemberton
“Pemberton’s beautifully told story is a rags to riches journey—beginning in a place and with a jarring set of experiences that could have destroyed his life. But Steve’s refusal to give in to those forces, and his resolve to create a better life, shows a courage and resilience that is an example for many of us to follow.”… See more details below
“Pemberton’s beautifully told story is a rags to riches journey—beginning in a place and with a jarring set of experiences that could have destroyed his life. But Steve’s refusal to give in to those forces, and his resolve to create a better life, shows a courage and resilience that is an example for many of us to follow.” —Stedman Graham, Author, Educator
Home is the place where our life stories begin. It is where we are understood, embraced, and accepted. It is a sanctuary of safety and security, a place to which we can always return. Down in the dank basement,
amid my moldy, hoarded food and worm-eaten books, I dreamed that my real home,
the place where my story had begun, was out there somewhere, and one day I was going to find it.
Taken from his mother at age three, Steve Klakowicz lives a terrifying existence. Caught in the clutches of a cruel foster family and subjected to constant abuse, Steve finds his only refuge in a box of books given to him by a kind stranger. In these books, he discovers new worlds he can only imagine and begins to hope that one day he might have a different life—that one day he will find his true home. A fair-complexioned boy with blue eyes, a curly Afro, and a Polish last name, he is determined to unravel the mystery of his origins and find his birth family. Armed with just a single clue, Steve embarks on an extraordinary quest for his identity, only to learn that nothing is as it appears. A Chance in the World is the unbelievably true story of a wounded and broken boy destined to become a man of resilience, determination, and vision. Through it all, Steve’s story teaches us that no matter how broken our past, no matter how great our misfortunes, we have it in us to create a new beginning and to build a place where love awaits.
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A CHANCE IN THE WORLDAn Orphan Boy, a Mysterious Past, and How He Found a Place Called Home
By STEVE PEMBERTON
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 Stephen J. Pemberton
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFor decades a recurring memory haunted me. Or was it a dream? It's early evening, and I am in the backseat of a moving car, on the right-hand side. Another child sits beside me, on my left. Is this child a boy or girl? How old is he? What is her name? I am cold, hungry, and disoriented. In front sit two people, but I cannot tell what they look like. Are they men or women? They are asking me questions, and I am answering them. I sense they are trying to reassure me.
The car lurches to a stop. We get out and walk into a large brick building. It is incredibly clean, and my feet squeak when I walk. I think I am in a hospital. Why have I been brought here? The other child remains next to me. The two of us stand against the wall while my front-seat companions (who exited the car with us) talk in hushed tones to a woman dressed in white and a strange-looking hat. The three of them then approach us, and the other child is led away by the woman dressed in white. This child looks over his or her shoulder one last time at me. I don't know why, but I do not want the white-clad woman to take the child. Still, there is nothing I can do to stop her. I feel a hand on my shoulder holding me in place as they walk out of sight.
Now we are in the car again, driving. The streetlights whip by, fascinating me. Where am I going? We stop again, and I am hustled into another building whose features I can't discern. Someone carries me into a room and places me on a bed with a pillow. I have never been warmer and more comfortable in my life. Another woman appears, and the three of them keep saying, "You're going to be okay now." I drift off into a peaceful sleep.
For years these events lived in the gray area between memories and dreams. There were times when I accepted that I was never to know what these images meant and still other times when I believed that if I unpacked them one more time, I would finally unlock their meaning. The sheer persistence of these images haunted me as much as the images themselves. These events have always been with me, part of the poetry of my life, interwoven with first kisses, high school graduation day, college finals, first days on the job, and Lamaze classes.
One day I learned the truth. These memories were from the day I was taken from my mother.
I would never see her again.
Chapter TwoGRUMPY: Ask her who she is, and what she's doing here!
DOC: Ah, yes. What are you, and who are you doing here? —Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Walt Disney)
As a young boy, and then well into my teens, I would stare long and hard in the mirror, drinking in every detail of my features. I went into the bathroom, locked the door, and turned on the water so the house's other occupants would believe I was busy. Then, with dramatic anticipation, I would pick up my head from its bowed state and peer into the mirror.
I started with my curly brown hair that I wore in an Afro. The crowns carried blond tints that would brighten noticeably during the summer. I skipped over my eyes, saving them for last, and proceeded to my strong and prominent forehead. My eyebrows held no real interest for me, although I got distracted from my inspection by trying to raise the right one as well as I could the left. (I still can't do it.) My nose was straight with no hooks or curves, and my nostrils were flared slightly. My lips were of average size, and on the rare occasions that I smiled, I noticed that the right side of my mouth would turn up ever so slightly. I had brown freckles of various shades under my eyes and on my nose. I also had a habit of tilting my head when I was listening to someone, almost as if I were asking them to pour the information into my ears. My skin was very fair—not white, but close.
On the fifth finger of my left hand was a small nub, and I held it up to the mirror, turning it this way and that, hoping that a new viewing angle would tell me what it was and where it had come from. On that same hand, I found a circular scar on the tip of my third finger, almost as if my fingerprint had been sliced off and then reattached. More scars appeared on my rib cage and on my left foot. A story had been written on me, and a violent one at that, but it was a tale I neither knew nor understood.
I ended my regular inspection with my eyes, since these did not seem to match the rest of me at all. They were a deep blue, and I leaned even closer to the mirror to get a better look, my nose nearly touching the glass, my breath leaving a temporary fog. I could discern gold flecks around the pupils with little rivers of blue running from them. I would stare so long and hard into my own eyes that it appeared as if I were observing another person. The effect dizzied me, so I looked away and shook my head to clear the cobwebs.
This type of examination was not borne of vanity. I was too young to try to determine whether I was handsome or not, or even to care. Nor was I all that interested in determining if I was black or white. I was trying to discover much more important things: Who did I look like? Where had I come from? And most important, where were my mother and father?
Further compounding the mystery was my last name: Klakowicz. This jumble of vowels and consonants felt alien to me. How had I got ten this name? Where did it come from?
I stared into that magnificent piece of glass—asking, probing, and demanding. But the mirror always kept its secrets.
Chapter ThreeMy only memory of the Andrades, the people who took me in after I was removed from my mother, is not pleasant.
Several members of the Andrade family are preparing to go some where important. People shout, "Are you ready?" and "Let's go!" Finally, after much hustle and bustle, we stroll out onto the porch. A metal walkway extends from the porch to the sidewalk, and as we begin to move down it, I realize that we are approaching a car.
I stop dead in my tracks. No way, I think to myself. I am not going. In my four-year-old mind, cars are dangerous because when you get in them, your whole world changes. Unfortunately, I am too young to articulate these fears, and the only way I am going to get in the car is if someone picks me up and carries me.
They do not do that, though. They do something worse. They leave me on the back porch of the house and drive off. At first I think my ears have betrayed me and that I did not hear the doors slam, the engine start, and the car pull away from the curb. I leave the porch, walk down to where the car had been parked, and an empty space greets me.
I do not entirely believe that they have left me. I think they are coming right back—that they are just trying to scare me. I stand there on the walkway, listening, turning my head this way and that, hoping the wind will bring the sound of their approaching car, but there is nothing. I cry and yell for help. I beg them to come back. I promise to be a good boy.
Nothing I say brings them back.
I walk back down the path to the back porch and sit at the top of the stairs. The porch is not big; it is close to the ground and only has three steps. Yet its familiarity offers a safe haven. Beyond it is something less comforting: a forest of trees that stretches for miles. In that hostile place, shadows lurk and strange sounds echo. I do not dare leave the porch.
At some point I try the back door, but it is locked. As minutes pass and then hours, anxiety yields to a new emotion: terror. I have been left here—alone. They are not going to return. Daylight turns to dusk. It becomes completely dark. The night birds settle in, and crickets chirp. Additional night sounds ring, surrounding me. I jump at each one and cast furtive glances. I put my fingers in my ears, draw my knees to my chest, and rock back and forth.
Many hours later, car lights come down the road. A door slams, and I hear footsteps. I stand up.
A voice off in the distance asks, "Is he still there?"
The reply comes back, closer to me now, almost chuckling: "He sure is. Never moved from the spot."
Chapter FourIn August 1972, eighteen months after I had been placed in the Andrades' care, the family made a call to the Department of Social Services, requesting that the state take me from their home as soon as possible. When asked why, Mrs. Andrade, the family matriarch, said that she could not arrange for me to go to kindergarten. The social worker assigned to my case doubted this story, believing that Mrs. Andrade simply "did not want to be bothered [with me] anymore." There was another boy in the home whom she planned to adopt, and he had become the primary source of her attention.
When the social worker came to get me, I had no belongings and was dressed in shabby clothing. I also had a long list of untreated medical ailments, including an acute case of impetigo and an equally serious ear infection that had impaired my hearing and speech. I was perilously underweight and my nose had been broken. The Department of Social Services had paid only one visit to the home during the past eighteen months. After seeing my physical condition, the department shut down the Andrade home, removing the other boy chosen over me, and forbidding them from taking any more children. I have no memory of leaving the Andrades, and I doubt they shed any tears over my departure.
Chapter FiveI do not recall where I went after I left the Andrades, nor can I remember how much time had passed. But one warm summer afternoon when I was five, I found myself in a car with Patti Southworth, my latest social worker. We drove for a while before the car pulled up to a curb. She shut off the car, turned to me, and said, "Now, Steve, we are going to visit the Robinson family. I think you are going to like this place."
"Will this be a real home with a real daddy?" I asked.
"We'll see," Patti said, stepping out of the vehicle.
I yearned for a new home, a place where the family actually wanted to keep me. I also wanted to know about my original family, particularly my mother. Where was she? When was she coming to get me? The myriad social workers responsible for my case knew the answer, but they never told me. Several mentioned in my case file that I still felt a strong emotional connection to my family. One observed that, despite my quiet demeanor, I had some "very deep thoughts about my future."
I stepped out of the car and gazed up at the largest building I had ever seen. It was white with green trim on the outside. It seemed to stretch up forever. An iron fence surrounded the house, and a screened-in porch wrapped around the first level.
We walked up a small flight of cement stairs. Patti rapped on the white door and was greeted by a sweet, melodic voice: "Come in." We walked into a very small kitchen and then into a larger room. Standing there to greet us was Betty Robinson, a short, heavyset, caramel-brown-complexioned African American woman with big brown eyes, perfect teeth, and a blinding smile that warmed my soul. "What is your name?" Betty asked, bending down so that she was near eye level with me.
"Now, that is a nice name," she said, stepping back. I said nothing to this, but inside I was glowing.
"Do you like toys?" Betty asked.
I nodded my head yes, and Betty, who never seemed to stop smiling, pointed me to a plastic set of cowboys and Indians laid out on the carpet. I bent down and began playing while Patti sat in a chair opposite Betty. They talked in quiet tones. My ears perked up when I heard Patti say, "Still asks a lot about his mother ... not ready to tell him about that yet."
I pretended not to hear and continued to play. Then a man strode into the living room. He was a big bear of a man, with a long mustache that went down to his chin. He was dressed all in blue, including his hat. He walked over to Betty and pecked her on the cheek.
"Having a good day at work, Willie?" she asked.
"Same as usual," he said in a deep voice. He nodded at me. "So, who is this?"
"This is Steve," Betty said, "although I like Stevie better." She winked at me, and again I glowed.
"Well, does he like basketball?" Willie asked, pulling out a small red ball from behind his back. He showed me how to dribble the ball. I'm not sure what amazed me more, watching the ball bounce up and down in perfect rhythm or his enormous, paint-flecked hands that nearly engulfed the ball.
A few minutes later, Willie announced that he had to go back to work. Before leaving, he leaned over to shake my hand. I watched my little hand disappear into his. "Nice to meetcha," he said. He walked away, but then, pausing in the doorway, he said, "By the way, you can keep that." His finger pointed at the red ball that I hadn't stopped bouncing since he first showed me how.
A short time later, Patti told me that it was time to go. As we were walking out the door, Betty stopped me. "Would you like a cookie?" she asked.
I bobbed my head yes.
She handed me two small cookies. I started to munch on one; the other I stuck in my pocket, crumbs falling to the bottom of the inside lining. Betty and Patti exchanged looks but said nothing.
I was too busy enjoying my cookie to figure out what their looks meant. Climbing into Patti's car, holding my precious cargo, I felt certain of something: This was the place. I had found a home.
Chapter SixAugust 1972 left many footprints in history. On August 1, reports emerged that a $25,000 cashier's check—designated for President Richard Nixon's reelection bid—had found its way into the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars, formally linking the break-in to the Nixon campaign for the first time. That same day, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger met with North Vietnamese diplomat Le Duc Tho in Paris to broker what would ultimately be a rather temporary ceasefire in Vietnam. Both stories were buried by the formal withdrawal of Democratic vice presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton, after weeks of rumor and speculation that he had been the recipient of shock therapy.
The Summer Olympics in Munich, intended to showcase a new and more democratic Germany but remembered for something far more sinister, started later that month. Gasoline was fifty-five cents a gallon, and the dark brilliance of The Godfather reigned at the box office.
Locally, New Bedford was abuzz over the tragic murder of a young prizefighter. And I arrived at the house on Arnold Street to live.
The house stood close to the corner of Arnold and Chancery streets in the western end of New Bedford, Massachusetts. As Patti and I stepped out of the car, I took a longer look at the neighborhood I would soon call mine. It was awash in colors and sounds that I had failed to notice on my first visit. Across the street sat a bright-red brick building that ran the length of the block. A large, red-white-and-blue sign outside read "Benjamin Fuller Paint Store." On the opposite corner stood Sunnybrook Farms, a local grocery store whose sign featured a perfectly painted picture of the sun. Right next door to the Robinson home, on Chancery Street, was a low-slung, white brick building with a green roof and no sign. It piqued my curiosity, now in overdrive. On the corner was a bright-orange fire hydrant, and on the opposite corner a bright-red stop sign. Farther down stood several homes of varying colors and designs.
Patti Southworth watched as I took it all in. "Ready?" she asked.
Betty was sitting on the back porch, wearing a pretty flowered shirt and blue shorts. Again she greeted me with that magnificent smile: "Welcome to your new home. We've been looking forward to having you." At her feet was a small tricycle with an orange frame, bright-yellow handlebars and seat, and blue pedals. The two small wheels in back and one big one in front sparkled in the sun. I gawked at it, fascinated.
"That," she said, "is called a Big Wheel. And it's yours!"
"Really?" I asked. I'd never received anything like this.
"Would you like to try it?"
She opened the back door of the porch and set the Big Wheel down on the ground. Off in the distance I could hear dogs barking and children playing. It was a stiflingly hot summer day. "You can ride it," she said, "but you have to stay right here on the sidewalk where I can see you." Again I felt that warm rush because, as best I could recall, no one had ever seemed concerned enough about me to care where I was going.
Excerpted from A CHANCE IN THE WORLD by STEVE PEMBERTON Copyright © 2012 by Stephen J. Pemberton. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Steve Pemberton is Divisional Vice-President and Chief Diversity Officer for Walgreens, the first such person to hold that responsibility in the company’s 110 year history. Prior to assuming his role at Walgreens, Steve Pemberton was Chief Diversity Officer and Vice-President of Diversity and Inclusion at Monster.com, the leading global online careers property. Steve and his wife, Tonya are the proud parents of three children.
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Any one who has ever worked with children or plans to should read this book so they know what to look for and how to end any child's suffering. I know Steve as he is today, and he is one of the kindest, most gracious people I have ever met. I can't imagine how he survived what he did -- and I am thankful every day that he has and is willing to share his story with us.
I loved Steve's writing talent. He is able to draw the reader in and keep their attention throughout the book.
This young man actually lived in my neighborhood. I used to talk with the Robinson!s when they were outside sitting on their porch. It is so true that we have no idea of what goes on behind closed doors. Unbelievable story of courage and how strong our will to survive truly is.
This book is incredibly inspirational. For Mr. Pemberton to have experienced all that he did and to have become the person that he is today is extraordinary. I couldn't put the book down, crying often, and thanked G-d for my parents and the parent that I am trying to be. I highly recommend this book to all who need to be reminded of the struggles that many children endure.
This book reads like a novel and yet it is a true story, one that would have crushed many people. What is so inspiring is that Mr. Pemberton never makes ther reader feel as though he is asking for your sympathy or pity nor is he offering his experience with the foster care system as an excuse for anything that has occured in his life. Mr. Pemberton deserves all of life successes and much more.
Heard the author at a book signing. He's an amazing writer. Although I was concerned that his story would upset me and linger in my thoughts, the opposite happened. His story is life affirming and reminds one about the impact of simple acts of kindness. A powerful book.
Very inspirational book! A must read for all ages.
A very good novel, well written. Sorry for his pain.....thanks for sharing your horrific life story.
Having met and gotten to know the author as well as having heard his life's tale first hand I cannot wait to be able to read this book. Steve is a dynamic Person, Coach, Speaker and story teller that has a way of making you believe that through hard work and determination you can do/be anything you set your sights on. It's time to be inspired! MD
I've met Steve Pemberton and heard him speak, and every word in this book is quite believable. This is the story of an abandoned child with an incredibly irresponsible mother, thrown into a foster situation that should never have been permitted to occur. Steve holds it together throughout and succeeds in spite of his personal situation. This story should be used as a counterpoint to those who blame their personal failure on other people or on their situation in life. Steve let none of this stop him and he is a model for success against the odds. Highly recommended, especially for those who are uncertain of the value of family.
Good read. I would recommend this book
Loved this book, just wished he had included some family photos.
This was definitely an awesome read! I recommend eveyone reads this book. We should all be thankful for the lives we have whether good or bad. I could relate to many parts of the book that touched me in so many ways!! Please Read!!!!
Awesome book on courage and the true meaning of when life gives you lemons make lemonade....a testimony of healing, forgiveness and the opportunity to right injustice by telling his story. Exceptionally well written memoir which provided a glimps of american history, social services evolution, challenges and accomplishments of a bi racial orphan and the true meaning of how we respond and navigate through life with our choices make the difference of our outcomes...Great Read! I recommend for all ages who can read and comprehend...especially young men. Steven Pemberton is an inspiration to all.
Wow! The things my nephew suffered were horrendous. Steve is a perfect example of overcoming adversity. I am so proud of him. Read his book you will absolutely enjoy the read.
What an incredible story this author told of his horrific childhood. I couldn't put it down! I highly recommend reading this book. I loved it!
What a life story. And, as a bonus, it was very well written. Extremely engaging, which is amazing yo say since the bulk of the book was during his very, very tough years. I loved it so much, I have recommended it a lot.