Steve Pemberton survived abusive adolescent years. Now, he gives insight on what PTAs can do to help other children in the system.
Steve Pemberton admits that he should have told his story some 20 years ago. But sometimes recounting pain is as tough as living through it.
The married father of three now lives a blessed life as a Fortune 50 company executive in Chicago. But behind his storybook exterior is the tragic tale of a tattered foster kid from Massachusetts, a forgotten child, a ward the State labeled as “at-risk” before proceeding to shuffle him from one suspect family to the next, each taking him in more for money than love.
In the sprint to achieve his current success, the horror of his past has always given chase. Doing right by his family helped distance, but not shake, the childhood memories of physical beatings and mental abuse that included everything from being forced to rummage through trash cans for dinner to hiding books under the stairs because his foster parents told him to stop reading so much.
It would eventually take talk—not walk—therapy to finally free Pemberton’s heels, heal his pain, and give him the time and space to help others.
“Becoming a husband and a father, my children were filled with questions about my mother and father. Where were they? What happened to them? One question which led to another question, and another question,” says Pemberton, who wrote the book “A Chance in the World: An Orphan Boy, a Mysterious Past, and How He Found a Place Called Home” (Harper Collins). “So I felt like it was a story that I needed to get down for them. But I also needed to get it down for others in the same situation. I didn’t need to get it down for me as much. Because, while I do believe that you need to be healed, the healing for me came from building my own family.”
Currently the chief diversity officer and divisional vice-president for Walgreens Corporation, Pemberton, by all accounts, is living a very different life than the one initially envisioned for him. He has become recognized as one of the nation’s leaders on matters of diversity and inclusion. Pemberton’s story of triumph over adversity has lessons in ti for anyone interested in the well-being of foster children, especially teachers, parents and counselors who have direct contact with them during their formidable years.
Pemberton was taken from his mother at one-and-a-half years old and placed in the foster care system. “A few days before Christmas,” he tells One Voice. “I never saw her again.”
He stresses that there are many wonderful families who adopt children every day, and many families who love and care for that child, for a lifetime. “But, unfortunately I didn’t find one of those families,” he says. “Or, one of those families didn’t find me.”
Pemberton says that he ended up with families who subjected him to “every kind of challenge, obstacle that you can imagine.”
He felt like a forgotten child. “There’s really no other way to describe it…,” says Pemberton, who later found out that his mother battled drug addiction and died while he was in foster care. “I was completely forgotten about.”
He says that he spent much of his adolescence in fear of what was going to happen on a daily basis. Many times he was beat, cursed, and told that he was a mistake and no one wanted him. “They tell me that no one’s particularly concerned about me, and, everything I experienced on a daily basis affirmed that for me,” he says. “There were no teachers stepping in, no social workers trying to encourage you, and you have your foster parents telling you that you are the problem.”
He said that when he didn’t get love from his foster families, he sought love from social workers and teachers. “Anyone who I believed and hoped would see me as more than this broken boy,” he says. “But, none of them did.”
He admits that most children would simply accept their situation, give in to the notion that they somehow deserved to have a parentless life being physically and emotionally abused by heartless people. But he chose a different route. “My response to that was to fight back. Fight back through doing well in the classroom, I couldn’t fight them. I was too small to fight them physically. But I could fight them mentally with my love of reading and performance in the classroom. And, as a result it gave me self-esteem. It gave me vision. And, it gave me purpose.”
A relentless reader, Pemberton says that he has no idea the number of books he read as a child. But he does remember a woman, Mrs. Levin, who would bring him books that her children were no longer reading. She brought them in boxes to me,” he says. “She brought them, at least once a month.”
He would have to sneak away to read because his foster parents would yell at him if he was reading rather than doing chores around the house. “They were terribly violent people. And, they had these crazy rules, so I would hide under the stairs to read,” he says. “I loved mysteries. I read Alfred Hitchcock and Encyclopedia Brown, and Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. Watership Down was my favorite. Lord of the Rings. They all brought me to different worlds that would move me on a daily basis from the realities of the experience that I was in. In my mind’s eye, I was a conqueror. I was a discoverer. I was an explorer. I was an astronaut. I was a detective. I was all these things that came to me through reading.”
None of his teachers knew of his situation. But since publishing his story, “I hear from them often, and with great apology because they suspected,” Pemberton says. “After reading the book, they realized that their suspicions were far worse than anything that they actually suspected was going on. And, so what I hear from them is, ‘How come I didn’t see?’ It’s very emotional for them, because I think they look back and see that they could have stopped it all. They could have stopped it. And, because they struggled to act, they didn’t.”
Pemberton says that it is important for child advocates to understand that these kids didn’t create their situation. “They didn’t ask for it. They just showed up. And they showed up through an avenue that has been wrought with peril and difficulty. And, the only question you can really have is, ‘What can I do to help provide you a pathway?’ At PTAs, what I would do is surround that child with a different vision. Because, that is what you need more than anything else. The situation and circumstance that they are either in or have come from, you can’t change that. But, you can provide a different vision, a different pathway.” On a more practical level, we can certainly become special advocates for foster children, or, if it’s within your heart and your means and your ability to adopt, then that is something that you can do as well.”
Because of his good grades in school, Pemberton went on to receive a scholarship to attend Boston College. After going so long not talking about his past, he says that he now cherishes his role as an advocate for foster children. He says that PTAs play a vital role in helping foster children, especially youth that may be in less than desirable situations. ”You can do something. You can act on your suspicions. You can bring a box of books. You can adopt a child. You can become a volunteer. I mean, there is so much that you can do,” he says. “You are not powerless to do anything, particularly through organizations and communities around that child.”
Pemberton says that he hears from foster children every day, thanking him for telling his story, and for helping them understand that they do not have to accept labels or their present condition. “They don’t focus, actually, on the tragedy of my story, because they have their own stories of abandonment and suffering,” he says. “They want to know how you overcame it. What did you do to get through it?”
He said that, while it took some 20 years longer than it should, he is happy that his story is finally out there and his book is getting so much attention. “I wanted the story to get out there, not for the book sales. I’m an executive at a Fortune 50 company, so I’m doing okay,” he says. “But, it’s more for others who [read my story and] say, ‘Okay, I’m going to survive this because he did. He’s telling me it’s possible.’”
Kevin Chappell is a senior editorial manager at National PTA in Alexandria, VA.