12 Jun Mission Driven
I’ve always believed that words have power. The right words can spark change for the good. When I was in college I decided that instead of my goal of becoming a U.S. Congresswoman, I wanted to be a magazine writer and write stories that would move people.
Fast forward. In 2004, I’d completed work on Clay Mathile’s book Dream No Little Dreams, which is about his remarkable life and how he took The Iams Company to almost $1 billion in sales. Over the course of three years, I interviewed more than 100 people, almost all with Clay present. I’ve always loved entrepreneurs, having grown up with my dad, who is one. Clay became my mentor. The most important thing I learned from Clay is that to live life to the fullest you must figure out your mission and then make sure whatever you are doing is in line with that.
I pondered what my mission should be. By most standards, I’d enjoyed a successful career as a journalist. My husband Kevin and I had gone through a period where we almost exclusively wrote about the Caribbean. I loved travel writing and the adventures it afforded our family. But thinking about my writing going forward, I realized I wanted to shift my focus. I composed my mission statement: I write inspirational stories that move hearts and change lives.
Soon after, I got the opportunity to be editor in chief of Atlanta Woman, which was targeted to executive and entrepreneurial women. My mission statement guided the stories I selected for the magazine, and the publication won awards.
Now that our sons were older, Kevin and I discussed adopting a little girl – either from China or out of foster care. Kevin traveled to China with my best friend Angela Lee to pick up her second daughter who is named Addison Echo. He got permission to photograph in the orphanage where Addison had lived. One little girl caught his eye and he spent the entire time shooting with one hand while holding her. We volunteered with different organizations that served children in need.
Then everything changed on November 7, 2004. Kevin was rear ended on I-75 by a distracted driver speeding in a construction zone. He suffered a mild traumatic brain injury. I quit my job to rejoin Kevin in the company we’d co-founded in 2001.
With our future uncertain, we recognized that that we were no longer in a position to adopt. Kevin and I prayed that we could somehow use our talents to help orphans, especially older kids who were unlikely to get adopted. I kept thinking about the scripture in James: Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.
The next week in June, I got stuck in one of Atlanta’s famous traffic jams for two hours with the design team that had been hired by Sam Bracken, who was vice president of marketing for Mohawk Industries. Because they knew I wrote books, they started telling me all of these crazy stories about Sam’s life – being homeless at 15 and growing up surrounded by motorcycle gangs and mobsters in Las Vegas. We never did make it to the meeting, but I gave my cell number and asked that Sam call me if he was interested in writing a book. He called that same day.
That was seven years ago. Almost from Day One, Sam and I dreamed of creating a nonprofit that would help homeless older kids and teens in foster care. We also talked about the fact that few organizations are standing in the gap to help young people once they turn age 18. We wanted to create a movement by using his story of overcoming childhood poverty, abuse and homelessness to raise awareness. I believed that his transformational change process would inspire young people to have hope.
Then came the struggle. We went through several versions of the book before finally developing the concept for My Orange Duffel Bag: A Journey to Radical Change. The name of the book came from the fact that when Sam was awarded a football scholarship with Georgia Tech, everything he owned fit in an orange duffel bag. Our book – part mini-memoir, part self-help and graphically driven on every page – didn’t neatly fit into any category. We called it experiential inspiration. We wanted it to appeal to people who wouldn’t normally pick up a memoir. Two agents and 60 rejections from publishers over a two-year period later, we grew impatient. We’d witnessed the power of Sam sharing his story with kids all over the country. Some wrote him emails, confessing that they’d planned to commit suicide before hearing his story and knowing that they weren’t alone in their suffering and, more importantly, that hope existed.
We partnered with the Canadian design firm The FaqTory, which had done the samples for the book design, and decided to self-publish. Our manuscript landed in the hands of Georgia Commissioner of the Department of Human Services B.J. Walker, who called it “the most transformational book I’ve ever read.” Meanwhile, Richard Becker, founder/director of Chrysalis Experiential Academy in Roswell, GA, and a lifelong educator, piloted our curriculum with his middle and high school students. Those students gave us the first donation check for the Orange Duffel Bag Foundation (www.ODBF.org), a 501c3 nonprofit that Sam and I started in February 2010. ODBF provides certified life coaches who teach at-risk kids (ages 12-24) how to create life plans, set goals and achieve them, and overcome the barriers they inevitably encounter. That June the state of Georgia gave our book as a graduation gift to 300 youth in foster care who had graduated high school and were honored during an annual event called Celebration of Excellence. We also launched our first coaching class with teens who were in foster care in Atlanta. ODBF graduates were awarded an orange duffel bag with a fully-loaded laptop computer.
Our book came out in September 2010, and we sold thousands of copies within those first few months. Meanwhile, I was heartened to see how many people joined our band of volunteers as coaches and advocates with ODBF. The needs are overwhelming. There are more than two million homeless children and teens in the U.S. More than 500,000 are in foster care, and each year 30,000 age out (usually at age 18). In our home state, 86% of young people who have been in foster care leave the system without graduating high school or getting their G.E.D.s. The national number hovers at around 50%. We are determined to help encourage young people to stay in school and pursue higher education or technical school. Right now we are working with D.H.S. in both Georgia and Utah, where Sam now resides. Our dream is to take our 12-week coaching program and ongoing advocacy nationwide. (Please visit www.ODBF.org to learn more about our nonprofit.)
A third agent, Jan Miller, convinced us to give the traditional publishing route one more try. After a mini-auction, Crown Archetype, an imprint of Random House, acquired world rights to our book. My Orange Duffel Bag is the only self-published book Crown has ever acquired. In 2011, we won five national awards for best young adult nonfiction and self-help as well as two international design awards.
Today is the official publication date of Crown’s 1st edition of My Orange Duffel Bag, which has a first printing of 60,000 copies. I am thrilled about that because it means our message of hope will get out that much faster.
It’s been quite a journey. What makes the struggle so worthwhile is thinking about the resilient young people I’ve met along the way – Shalisa, Sabastian, Gi’Nia, Joseph, Shernita, Elena and so many others. Theirs are the stories that are written on my heart.