Guest Column by Dennis M. Melowski
I recently had the privilege of giving an address at the Boys & Girls Club of Sheboygan County Leadership Awards dinner. My mission was to impress upon the attendees the merits of donating to the Boys & Girls Club. As I stood at the podium looking out on my audience, I couldn't help but notice that I was addressing some of the most successful people in the county: captains of industry, wealthy business people, doctors, lawyers and judges. I, myself, have been fortunate enough to find success both personally and professionally throughout my adult life. As I have gotten older, I have given increasing thought to the roots of that success. Was I just "special"? Was I a harder worker than everyone else? Were other people simply not as good as me or, worse yet, just lazier? Doubtless, the temptation is great to cast our personal narrative in a light most favorable and the value of hard work and talent cannot credibly be debated. That said, I am increasingly of the belief that what separates the "successful" from the "non", at least materially, are circumstances that have little to do with being special.
I was born to parents who always stressed the importance of education, despite the fact that neither went to college themselves. My Mom made me lunch every day and I became known as the kid who brought pierogis in his thermos. They were from scratch, took all day to make and were symbolic of her love for me. My Mom was also there to teach me a lesson after getting into a fight at school. My Dad showed me how to throw a pitch that allowed me to play baseball in college and taught me not to back down from anybody, likely the need for Mom's lessons. Together, they sacrificed to send me to a Jesuit college prep school I'm certain they couldn't afford. It was the best one in Detroit, academically and athletically, and my attendance there opened many doors. In every instance, my parents gave me the opportunity to succeed. But what if my circumstances had been different? What if I were born to parents who loved me just as much but, because Dad died when I was five, Mom had to take a second job to make ends meet? The homemade lunches would be gone, as would the after-school lessons. The fights would probably increase. What if Mom's second job wasn't enough for our family of five, and I had to drop out of high school altogether to get a job myself? Or we had to sell our house and move to a worse part of town, with worse influences? What if things were even more horrifying and I was born to parents who abused me or who had addiction problems that they "taught" me? Would I have made it to give that speech at the Boys & Girls Club dinner? Unlikely.
I have a daughter who is thirteen and excels in everything she does. She's the type of kid who freaks out if she's only getting an "A" in a class and not an "A+". As a parent, I have no complaints. But I never waste an opportunity to remind her that her life is a baseball analogy: she was born on third base. With nobody out. With those odds, it's going to be pretty damn easy to score in life because she has been given every conceivable opportunity to succeed. And that's not likely to change anytime soon. Unfortunately, not every kid has those same opportunities. There are far too many down 0-2 in the count. With two outs. These are not "losers" or, by definition, "lazy". These are kids who, other than the blind luck of circumstances, bear no blame for their situation, yet to whom we have a profound moral obligation. These are kids who absolutely have the ability to score in life if we can just help them reach base. All they need is the opportunity to score, an opportunity that we as a society have the ability to create.
One of the great lessons my Mom taught me growing up was that the difference between an outstretched hand of help and an open palm of need is about a quarter turn of the wrist. There really isn't a whole lot more separating the two. It's about the distance of a few well-placed opportunities. You can offer that outstretched hand.