Letting go of past hurts, assembly speaker gains empathy and purpose

June 1, 2018


Steve Pemberton's heartbreaking but inspiring life story lasts for nearly 300 pages, but the essence of his book can be distilled to its title: A Chance in the World: An Orphan Boy, a Mysterious Past, and How He Found a Place Called Home.

Steve Pemberton

Pemberton, who will be a keynote speaker June 12 at the Catholic Health Assembly in San Diego, explains he once was written off as having not a chance in the world to overcome the sad circumstances of his childhood. But through the power of reading, the influence of mentors and a relentless drive to find out what he is capable of, he has become a loving husband and father, and a leader of a foundation that helps young people. His resilience inspires, and his story gives strength to adults who suffered as children.

In the book, and in A Chance in the World, an independent movie he co-produced based on the memoir, Pemberton uses the universal themes of family and faith, and fortitude and forgiveness to answer a question that shadowed his youth:

How do you shape a meaningful life when you know that your mother and father didn't want you?

His answer was to realize that we are measured not by what happens to us, but by how we respond.

"At some point," Pemberton said in a recent interview, "you've got to move beyond circumstances you're in and introduce yourself to this new world that you're in that's still overflowing in possibilities for you. That's the most exciting part of this for me."

Abandonment and abuse
His upbeat outlook is far from what one might expect based on his early years. Abandoned by his mother, not knowing who his father was, he grew up as Steve Klakowicz in the foster care system of New Bedford, Mass. It was there that a babysitter wrote the words that became not a prediction for the rest of his life, but instead a lifelong challenge.

"Dropped Steve off at the latest family his mother is boarding him out to," she wrote when he was 18 months old. "… he cried his heart out … this little boy doesn't have a chance in the world."

Much of his childhood was spent with the Robinsons, a foster family that presented an angelic face to the agency that oversaw his care. But when visitors left, Pemberton's life became a hellish existence of physical and psychological abuse. Fearing even worse punishment if he blew the whistle, he learned to keep quiet, take refuge in prayer and in books and win small victories whenever he could.

When the torture became too much, a few days after Christmas in his senior year of high school, he begged to be removed from the Robinson home. A school counselor agreed to let Pemberton stay with him. He had finally found a family worthy of the name.

After high school, he graduated from Boston College, then worked in its admissions office. He went on to work as a diversity officer at Monster.com, then Walgreens, before taking his current position as chief human resources officer at Globoforce, a company that helps develop strong workplace cultures.

Becoming a daddy
Pemberton also got married and is now the father of three children. That family helped spur his continued research into the backgrounds of his parents — Marion Klakowicz, a white woman who struggled with alcoholism, and Kenny Pemberton, an up-and-coming African-American boxer who was murdered at the age of 26. He eventually went to court to change his last name.

"As a child, even as a young man," Pemberton said in the interview, "I had no appreciation for the history they had come from and how they had suffered. I was going to be even more driven to live a life that demonstrates that their lives were not in vain."

The combination of finding out about his long-lost family and the joy that his own children brought motivated Pemberton to share his story. In the book, he recalls a key question asked by his 6-year-old son Quinn:

"When you were a little boy, did you have a daddy?"

"I stare at him for a long time," Pemberton writes. "I thought this question would come years from now, perhaps as a final father-son chat before he went off to college. But it was not in the future; it was right here, right now."

Keeping his vow to tell his children the truth about his difficult youth, Pemberton says softly, "No, son. When I was a little boy, I did not have a daddy."

Quinn furrows his brow, then looks up.

"Maybe next time you will have a daddy," he says.

Letting go of past hurts
For a year, Pemberton got up each morning at 4:30, needing a quiet time and place to lay out his story. He said the process was neither painful, nor cathartic. Becoming a husband and father had already helped heal him. He was surprised at how his story struck universal chords.

Within a week after A Chance in the World was published, he heard from a 73-year-old man in Ireland, who said he had read the book in one sitting and wanted to let Pemberton know how it had affected him.

"His last message was so powerful," Pemberton said. "He said he had carried the burden of what he had lost in his childhood all of his life. What I had written was going to allow him to go to his rest in peace."

Was there any downside to going public with the difficulties he had shared?

"There will be those who see this in the light of tragedy," he said, "who will say this is a sad story, who will see words like neglect and abandonment and abuse and will assign that to you, even though those are not the terms you assign to yourself.

"I inherited a tragedy. I didn't ask for it. I didn't deserve it. But I was responsible for it. Sometimes you have to say it's not fair, but you have to own it."

And you also need to be awake to the generosity of the people who are willing to help. Pemberton's primary message is a threefold loop.

"First, all is not lost. Second, there is universal goodness that is still in us and amongst us. It is hard to find, perhaps, but it's still there. We may not be looking in the right places, but it's there. Third, you can create a new beginning."



Copyright © 2018 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.

Copyright © 2018 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.