Sept. 2013 In His Words: Steve Pemberton


Chief Diversity Officer/Divisional Vice President, Walgreens

“It’s because we don’t know if you belong with a white family or a black family.”

It had been a long day. My well-intentioned social worker spent the better part of that summer day taking me to visit homes to determine whether they would take me in. After several visits, it had become clear that I was not going to find the one thing that my five-year-old heart most longed for: a home. This failed search confused me, so I asked her why it was so hard.

Her response, that this was about color, was just as confusing. I had no way of knowing that I was a collision of contrasts; a light-complexioned, blue-eyed African-American boy with a blonde afro and, at that time, Polish last name of Klakowicz. I also had no way of knowing that several years prior, at one-and-a half years old, a babysitter wrote that I didn’t have ‘a chance in the world.’ Those inheritances and that prediction would stand in the way of finding me permanent placement.

I never did find the home of my childhood dreams. In my home state of Massachusetts, I fell through the gaps of the social service system that simply forgot I existed. Yet, that adversity would activate me, arming me with a skill set often developed when someone is placed in a situation where every day is a battle to survive.

In that world, gestures of kindness from strangers meant everything. I still remember the librarian who often smiled at me as I sat alone reading my latest mystery; the construction crew that adopted me one summer as they worked in the neighborhood; the kind woman who over the years brought me boxes of books; the hospital nurse who never accepted the foster family’s story of how I had been hurt; and, most importantly, the high school teacher who took me in as a teenager when I literally had nowhere to go. These people all had two things in common: they weren’t looking for recognition and their gestures told me they believed in me.

Those kindnesses gave me something else – vision. For anyone who inherits a challenging situation they didn’t ask for and they didn’t create, one of the most important things they can do is develop a vision of a different life. Then, with unyielding determination and an abiding faith, they can relentlessly chart their path towards realizing that vision.

Ultimately, we all come into the world as inheritors; it could be a great name or great wealth. It can also be great tragedy. But we are not measured by what we inherit, over that which we had no say, but by that which we build, for which we are largely responsible. I had a responsibility to end the cycle that had created my lost childhood – for myself and for my future generations.

And along the way, I wound up with a chance in the world after all.

Editor’s Note: Steve Pemberton graduated from Boston College and is now married with three children. Read more about Mr. Pemberton’s story at His book – A Chance In The World – is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million.


About Steve Pemberton

A child advocate, motivational speaker and author, Steve Pemberton also serves as chief diversity officer and divisional vice president of Walgreens. Living a life very different from what he envisioned has a child, Mr. Pemberton reflects on his upbringing in his book, A Chance In The World, available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million.