'I'M THE LUCKIEST PERSON I EVER MET' Nine successful men and women tell how they managed to overcome often horrendous childhoods, where poverty was not necessarily the enemy.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Carl Bernard, a senior at Connecticut College who considers himself so lucky, credits a teacher and a businessman for his change from a ninth-grade dropout to a campus leader. For many of these survivors, just one person meant the difference between hope and despair. But others had no one. Only their own inner strength pulled them through. The individuals portrayed on these and the following pages came from families where at least one parent was absent physically or emotionally -- or they grew up amid abuse, alcoholism, or crime. Some saw their parents go to jail or their friends die. Most followed those behavioral trails for a time before salvaging themselves. Whatever their past, these nine now lead lives that are inspiring to others in crisis -- and to those more fortunate among us.
MARINO ANGULO, 19 Nervous and jittery, he took his place with the 500 other members of the graduating class on the sun-soaked football field of Montebello High School, California. For sure, he was fired up to earn even a high school diploma. But when Marino Angulo's name was called from an elite list of about 15 kids who had achieved perfect attendance, he bounded onstage to accept the award with special pride. His best day ever? Not quite. Says the six-foot stretch of youth, the eldest of nine children: ''It would be, except that my father's in jail.'' That Angulo graduated at all, not to mention his 3.14 grade-point average, letters in basketball and baseball, and perfect attendance since he turned 13, is remarkable. Marino's father, who at the time of the graduation was serving a 90-day sentence for injuring his common-law spouse (Marino's mother), is an unemployed factory worker. Marino's mother has also done jail time. She served ten months for possession of drugs when he was a sophomore. ''The year my mom was away,'' Marino recalls, ''I thought I'd never make it.'' In retrospect, he says, that period helped him find the resolve he needed to survive. He and his sister Maria, now 18 and also a new high school grad, became surrogate parents to their seven younger siblings, four boys and three girls, ages 3 through 16. ''If Maria and I were the only children, we might have gotten caught up in gangs,'' he says. ''I've had the burden of carrying my brothers and sisters, and I know they look up to me.'' Marino credits Montebello's assistant basketball coach, Gil Gomez, with convincing him that staying in school was the best way to help his family. His mother is back home but has no job. Marino says she often complains of feeling sick. The family gets nearly $900 a month from welfare, about the same as they paid to rent their three-bedroom home in East Los Angeles's Hispanic ghetto. They moved four blocks to a house with two bedrooms that costs about $300 less. This fall, Marino, who says he views life as a ''big challenge,'' plans to attend Whittier College and major in psychology. Telacu -- a local business group -- and the Kiwanis are contributing $2,200 toward his tuition. Marino will live at home and use buses for the 30-minute commute. Maria, meantime, is enrolled in a community college in East Los Angeles. Asked what he dreams about, Marino says, ''I have dreams about my little brothers and sisters years from now. We'll have reunions. We'll all have jobs. And,'' he predicts confidently, ''we'll be well off.''
JESSE LANG, 32 If you think that ''at risk'' or ''disadvantaged'' applies only to minority kids who grew up in poverty, meet Jesse Lang. She describes her background this way: ''I was born in the western suburbs of Chicago. An upper-middle- class neighborhood. Big backyard. We had a Golden Delicious apple tree and a big Great Dane. It was,'' she says, ''idyllic from the outside.'' Inside was different. By the time she was 16, Jesse was an active alcoholic and marijuana addict. At 18, with a high school-equivalency diploma, she moved to Boston, where she was soon experimenting with cocaine, LSD, and heroin and, she says, drinking around the clock. Clean and sober for the past six years, Lang is now a dean's list student at Tufts University with a double major in biology and environmental science -- and a single parent to Rory, who turns 4 in September just as Lang begins her senior year. Jesse's parents divorced when she was 8. Already an A student, that meant ''I thought I had to be perfect. I had to be good enough to get my father back.'' She impressed classmates as a ''brain'' who was cool enough to hang with the drug crowd. ''I changed my friends every year because I was afraid someone would learn that I didn't know everything,'' she says. ''I had to know how to roll a joint. I had to be academic smart and street smart.'' But by her junior year her grades had dropped to C's and D's. ''I was too stoned to do algebra,'' she says. She moved from her high school to a GED program at a local YMCA. After graduating, she worked in an auto repair shop, explaining to customers why their cars weren't ready, and then at a magazine distribution company, where she did a bit of everything. At 18 she caught a bus to Boston, where she worked in a series of restaurants, often stealing liquor and cash. Chronic lateness, however, was what usually cost her the job: ''Every night I'd stay in a bar until 4 A.M. and get trashed. I never ate. When people said, 'You need a meal,' I'd ask for a Kahlua sombrero. The milk was a meal.'' Only when she realized that she couldn't drink enough to satisfy her craving for alcohol did Jesse accept help. She went in and out of detox centers over the next two years. Finally she checked into a state-funded rehabilitation center for a month of treatment and then into a halfway house. She found a clerical job at a bank but had to respect the halfway house's curfew. Says Lang: ''Once I was away from people who drank, it wasn't that hard to quit.'' She moved into her own apartment five months later. In 1989, feeling unchallenged, Lang applied to Tufts, which runs an undergraduate program for adults who fell off the college track. The state helps pay for Rory's day care while Lang attends classes. She feels guilty leaving her son. But, she says, ''I know that if I'm not pursuing something valuable, I'm not being good to my kid.''
JESUS JAUREGUI-MATUNAGA, 20 ''Statistically, I shouldn't be alive,'' says Jesus Jauregui-Matunaga, one of & only two survivors of an eight-member faction of the Crips, a Los Angeles gang he joined at 13. His appearance and accouterments, like the gold cigarette case that he slips constantly in and out of a pocket, make him seem years older than he is. See him walk the halls of the state capitol in Sacramento, where he interned for California assemblywoman Lucille Roybal-Allard during the summer break from L.A.'s Loyola Marymount University, and you might peg him as an up-and-coming 30-something bureaucrat -- or a candidate for office. Jauregui insists that he joined the gang reluctantly after older members, impressed by his artistic talents, persuaded him to create graffiti murals for them. In part, he was worried about the reaction of his parents, who immigrated from Mexico in the 1960s. His father is a metal factory foreman. But Jesus soon found gangdom ''exciting. It was something to do with friends.'' The price: His grades at Cantwell parochial high school fell as Jesus's interests shifted to getting drunk nightly and cruising for fights with his gang friends. ''I knew I could do the work,'' he recalls. ''But my mentality was, screw it.'' The crisis came in summer 1987, after his sophomore year. His best friend and fellow gang member, Eric, 22, died in a drive-by shooting the night he was out celebrating his release from prison, where he'd served two years for vandalism and assault. A few weeks later another friend, Javier, 16, who was not a gang member, ''caught a bullet for me,'' says Jauregui. Members of the rival South Central Bloods had targeted Jesus for death as part of a turf war. Instead, they hit Javier, who was standing beside Jesus as the Bloods' hit men drove by. Says Jauregui: ''He died in my arms.'' Jesus acknowledged the lunacy of this violence one afternoon when he found his mother crying. ''She said she thought she was a bad mother and told me, 'I feel someday you're going to walk out that door and never come back.' '' Jesus spent an hour on his knees, crying and kissing his mom's hands and feet. ''That summer was the worst and the best. My relationship with my parents improved, but at the expense of Eric's and Javier's lives.'' Jesus quit gang life, improved his grades, and with help from an anonymous donor enrolled at Marymount as a communications major. With other students he has co-founded two mentoring programs for inner-city youth. An avid reader on urban and racial violence, Jauregui says he views gang membership as a false kind of peer acceptance. He says, ''You lose your conscience in a gang. The gang is like a body, and you're just one of the organs.'' Now he worries most about his younger siblings, two brothers and two sisters, 4 through 14. Recently, Jauregui found a bandanna, a popular piece of apparel for gang members, in the drawer of his brother Gabriel, 14. Disbelieving Gabriel's claim that the article belonged to one of his friends, Jauregui went to get scissors and promptly cut it into shreds. Said he to Gabriel: ''Tell your friend I owe him a new bandanna.''
SEKETHIA SMITH, 26 Her third-floor apartment in northwest Washington, D.C., contains the typical trappings of a May graduate of the George Washington University School of Medicine: books at the bedside, diplomas on the wall, photographs on shelves and tabletops. But the pictures portray friends, not family members. At 2, Sekethia, whose unwed teen mother decided she couldn't look after her, was handed to foster parents. Both were elderly and died when she was 5. A second pair of foster parents, both sickly, died when she was 8. Then she moved to a third foster mother, who was divorced. All along, says Smith, ''there were no male figures around. And I wanted a father figure especially, since I never found out who my real father is.'' At 16, shortly after her birth mother died, Sekethia decided to move in with her grandparents, who lived with other family members in Washington. She knew most of them from occasional holiday visits. The extended Smith family and the new neighborhood was hardly what Sekethia had dreamed about. She found a clerical job at nearby Howard University, but, she says, ''money I worked for would often be missing.'' School, she says, was her high. ''I love structure. School was a structured environment where I had a peer group that I could relate to.'' Her love of learning pulled Sekethia forward. She helped pay her way through Trinity College, a Catholic women's school in Washington, by working in the school's public relations office and at the deli counter of a Safeway store. She went on to medical school, keeping the Safeway job. But she left herself insufficient time to study and flunked her first set of exams. George Washington then came through with a full first-year scholarship. She retook the exams and passed. Ever since, she has borrowed to keep herself in school, which has put her almost $100,000 in debt. ''People take out loans to buy the ! car or house of their dreams,'' she reasons. ''I'm my own investment. And I like what I see.'' Besides, Smith considers medicine ''my ministry'' and her just due for relying on the kindness of strangers throughout her life. She plans to practice anesthesiology. For one thing, it has more predictable hours than most medical specialties, enabling her to devote time to a family. As Smith says, that family, whenever it forms, will be her first.
BEN CARSON, 40 His are the hands that doodled and danced aimlessly on elementary school tests, threatened his mother with a hammer, and stabbed a friend whose belt buckle deflected the knife. The same hands have since saved many lives. As one of the world's leading pediatric neurosurgeons, Carson has developed and performed several surgical procedures for children suffering from brain tumors and chronic seizures. In his most acclaimed operation, Carson, chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, led a team of 70 doctors, nurses, and technicians in the first successful separation of Siamese twins joined at the back of the head. Says Carson: ''People who know me now find it absolutely incredible that I ever got mad about things.'' He often tells his life story to kids, hoping it might inspire them to get an education and escape the ghetto as he has. Carson's father, a part-time preacher and factory worker, walked out when Ben was 8, leaving his mother, Sonya, to support Ben and his older brother, Curtis, now 42 and an engineer at Allied-Signal. To do so, she worked at a number of low-paying jobs simultaneously. As a youngster in Detroit, Ben never cared about school and was known as the class dummy. So when he was 10, his mother reduced watching TV to three shows a week and made him read two books instead and write reports on them. Only years later did Carson realize she did not know how to read herself, but her assignments saved him. ''Reading was the transforming thing for me,'' he recalls. ''I read about inventors and engineers and men like Booker T. Washington and Abraham Lincoln who took themselves from nowhere, through reading, to become great men.'' In seventh grade he was winning spelling bees, and he became the top student in science. He felt inspired, but Ben's temper blocked his progress. As a young teen, he says, ''I'd hit people with bats and bricks. I was nuts.'' After he knifed a friend over an argument about changing a radio station, Carson locked himself in his bathroom for three hours and prayed. Reading from the Book of Proverbs, he came upon verses that warn about temper. For example, ''He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down.'' Says Carson: ''I recognized that if I couldn't control that temper, I would never realize my dream of becoming a doctor.'' That dream harks back to age 8, when he heard stories at his Seventh-Day Adventist church about missionary doctors. To him, they seemed ''the most noble people in the world.'' Graduating third in his class at Detroit's Southwestern High, Carson had only $10 to spend on college application fees. He decided to apply to whichever school won that year's College Bowl, then a popular TV quiz show. Yale's ouster of Harvard determined his next move. Scholarships and grants helped pay the aspiring doctor's way through Yale and the University of Michigan School of Medicine. Carson now lives in a Baltimore suburb with his wife, Candy, their three sons, ages 5 through 8 -- and his mother. Inspired by her son, Sonya Carson earned a high school degree at 43 and went on to a two- year college to get an associate of the arts degree. At 64, she now works as an interior decorator.
SHAJAN CLAY, 18 Her mother left her, at age 8, in the care of her grandmother. Her father spent most of the past 20 years in prison. At 12, Shajan walked into the kitchen of her grandmother's southeast Atlanta home where the bodies of a cousin and an uncle, victims of an accidental shooting and suicide, lay on the floor. Shajan (pronounced Sha-WAN) has forgotten -- or blocked out -- ever seeing the bodies. But she does remember: ''I ran out of the house and down the street screaming.'' Even aside from the shootings, the environment in which Shajan and her brothers, now ages 19, 17, and 5, have grown up has been physically violent, emotionally cruel, and drug-riddled. Some of her uncles, who never completed high school, disparaged Shajan's ambitions to get a diploma. ''Twelfth grade, you won't make,'' they taunted. ''You'll be having babies by then.'' Instead of discouraging her, the barbs had the opposite effect: ''I think all that made me a better person. I didn't have role models, but I knew I didn't want to be like the people I saw around me.'' Today, Shajan wants to teach disadvantaged elementary school children ''because the people who have helped me have been outside my family, mostly teachers. Teaching is sort of ! like magic to me. You put something in a child that wasn't already there.'' Teachers encouraged Shajan to study hard. She became valedictorian of her classes at Thomas Heath Slater Elementary School and Luther Judson Price Middle School. At Fulton High she played clarinet in the marching band, sang in the chorus, competed on the math quiz and debate teams, and last spring even taught first-graders at a nearby elementary school. Fulton runs a program that gives students who are interested in teaching careers on-the-job exposure, and the program's coordinator, Shirley Kilgore, became Shajan's mentor. Says Shajan: ''She instilled in me that no matter what happened, I could do in my life what I wanted.'' This year Shajan graduated fourth in her class academically with a 3.7 grade-point average. She also won a $1,000 ''Beat the Odds'' scholarship awarded by the Children's Defense Fund. In the fall Shajan will be attending Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on a full-tuition scholarship. Long term, Shajan hopes to practice child psychology. Maybe she will start a family, she says. ''If I do get married, it will be after I'm in a stable job and set up financially.'' Mindful of her own family history, she adds, ''Then, if my husband leaves, I can support myself.''
CARL BERNARD, 23 ''This is a risk I'll joyfully take. This young man has virtually no academic preparation, but he is naturally gifted with intelligence, talent, and spirit. He has learned a lot from living.''
Claire Matthews, dean of admissions at Connecticut College, wrote these words three years ago after interviewing a messed-up kid named Carl Bernard. Carl had been a wild child and had dropped out of one school and been expelled from another. Matthews's assessment: The boy needed a place to channel his formidable energies. She was right. Carl, whose anger nearly led him to arson and suicide, became a dean's list student and is one of the most respected campus leaders.
And a highly visible one too, thanks in part to those neon dreadlocks. Attention was what Carl sought as a child in Jersey City, New Jersey. He felt shortchanged by his parents, who fled Haiti not long before he was born. They divorced when he was 10, and his mother took Carl and his two sisters, now 25 and 19, to Boston's rough Dorchester section. ''My mom was constantly stressed and crying,'' he recalls. Carl never cared about school -- or much else. He failed eighth grade at Boston Latin School and dropped out. Father Paul Mahan, a Catholic priest, helped pay for him to attend Newman Prep, a private school in Boston. Within two years he was expelled. Explains Bernard: ''I failed half my classes and was a bit of a disciplinary problem.'' Feeling that ''the world was shit and I didn't see any reason to be part of it,'' he twice tried to kill himself. At 18, he broke into the home of a boy who stole his guitar, intending to burn the house down. Only the sound of a crying baby stopped him. Carl's turnaround began in 1987. Lori Jo Wallace, his 11th-grade French teacher at Newman Prep, invited him to speak to high-schoolers about his Haitian background. Children of War, a nonprofit organization, sponsors such talks around the U.S. Says Bernard: ''It was the first time that an adult cared what I thought about things, important things.'' The following year Carl earned his high school diploma, and continued to travel around Massachusetts for Children of War, speaking and singing his message: ''Believe in yourself. Don't be afraid to protest issues that concern and affect you.'' Another Children of War volunteer, Boston businessman Dan Cohen, steered him toward college. ''Dan convinced me that education could only expand my imagination and my thinking about the issues that I was writing my songs about.'' Bernard, a senior, has thrived at Connecticut College, a private, four-year school and Cohen's alma mater. The school and federal grants pay over half his tuition. Administrators have commended Carl for his efforts to set up a college network to share ideas that might improve race relations. Asked to compare his life today with what he has been through, Bernard says, ''Six years ago I wished I were dead. Today I feel like I'm the luckiest person I ever met.''
HUI-CHUAN SOO, 22 The way she zips her 1990 Honda Prelude down Stone Canyon Road, tosses a smile at the uniformed parking valet, and saunters to the bougainvillea-draped terrace of California's Hotel Bel-Air, you could swear she had been here before. But Hui-Chuan Soo is nothing like the ladies who lunch. A former member of a notorious Los Angeles gang, which she won't identify for fear of reprisal, she is on parole after serving five years in Ventura School, a cozy name for the maximum-security facility in which the California Youth Authority places female offenders. Just before her 16th birthday, Hui (pronounced like whey) was caught robbing a home in suburban Monterey Park. She was carrying a handgun. ''Sweet 16. Yeah, right,'' says Soo, who views her past with dark humor and resignation. Out of Ventura a year, she participates in Volunteers in Parole, a program that each year hooks up some 200 young offenders with Los Angeles lawyers who offer all forms of help short of legal advice. Cost-cutting California has stopped funding VIP, which is trying to survive with help from the likes of the Los Angeles County Bar Foundation. Today's hotel lunch (a burger and fries) is an assignment. Program director Randa Starr wants Hui to feel she can fit in with anyone anywhere, something that wasn't true in her early years. After arriving in Los Angeles from Taiwan at 12 with her parents, Hui attended a junior high with special classes for kids who didn't speak English well. ''I got straight A's and was a teacher's aide,'' she says. But when she moved into a regular school at 14, she still knew little English and felt lost. ''I fell behind. I got C's and D's.'' Hui soon began hanging out with two other Asian girls. The three cut classes, dabbled in drugs, and ran away from home, sometimes for months at a time. The truant trio's income came from weekly burglaries. ''We took cash and jewelry. No TVs, no VCRs, no stereos,'' says Soo. But one day a victim caught them in his home. No one was more surprised than Hui that prison helped her. And so did TWA. The airline runs a reservation center inside Ventura staffed by 50 inmates who have completed training in customer service and computer use. Says Soo: ''I decided to learn English as fast as I could. I did it in six months, mostly on the phones.'' Today, Soo speaks English fluently. She earned her high school diploma at Ventura and attends community college. Her ambition: law school. Meantime she works as an AT&T operator, fielding calls from China. She makes $1,200 a month. Her bills help keep her drug-free, Soo says. She pays for her own tuition and living expenses. What's left over is largely accounted for: ''I have to pay off my car'' -- about $450 a month.
KEVIN JOHNSON, 26 The star guard of the Phoenix Suns is such a generous guy on the basketball court that coaches have chewed him out for passing instead of shooting. For all that, Johnson is one of only five pro players ever to average more than 20 points and ten assists per game. But Johnson, the child of a 16-year-old , single mother, is far prouder of St. Hope Academy, an after-school facility in Sacramento, California, that he founded three years ago. St. Hope -- an acronym for Helping Our People Excel -- delivers academic and emotional support to kids from the drug-plagued Oak Park section where Johnson was raised -- ''with loads of love'' -- by his maternal grandparents. ''I'm the only one among my friends who made it out of this community successfully. A stable home life is what made me, and I want to give the same to these kids.'' Last year St. Hope moved to a new building with six classrooms, a recreation room, two bedrooms for occasional overnighters, and a small chapel. Corporate supporters like Apple Computer and Procter & Gamble contributed to the cost of the structure. Johnson is CEO of St. Hope and travels the U.S., meeting lots of kids and fund raising.
A paid staff of eight work year-round to give some 50 youngsters, ages 8 to 18, free education in math, English, and African-American history. Come summer, the Suns' off-season, Johnson hangs out with the kids, always telling them: ''It's cool to be smart.'' He delivers the same message while he's on the road. Explains Johnson: ''The dominant need of kids is to be accepted. But in the inner-city, if you act intelligent, or if you speak in complete sentences instead of the vernacular, other kids say, 'He's trying to be white,' or 'He's a nerd.' '' Johnson confesses to having been a bit of a nerd himself in high school, though his athletic talent gave him enough self-confidence to compensate. He drank a lot in high school and smoked pot, which also made him accepted socially. But after graduating from Sacramento High School, he chose his college for its academic reputation, not its sports program, picking the University of California at Berkeley. He earned a B.A. in political science. He used to study until midnight then sneak into Harmon Arena to shoot hoops. A janitor once asked, ''It's Saturday night. Why aren't you at the parties like everybody else?'' Replied Johnson: ''Because parties won't take me where I want to go.'' Unmarried and currently unattached, Johnson is dedicated to trying to save troubled kids nationwide. He envisions St. Hope as a model for programs in other cities. Says he: ''If ((Housing and Urban Development Secretary)) Jack Kemp wanted to make me the assistant for some HUD project, I'd do it right now.'' Johnson's grandparents are dead. But Grandma lives on in spirit as a rapper , on a video St. Hope produced for the kids. An actress portrays her yanking a boy playing Kevin away from basketball and back to his studies. She sings, ''If a task is once begun, do not leave until it's done . . . Do it well or not at all.''