By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.
From the day he was five and dropped off at his foster home of the next 11 years, Steve Pemberton’s days were filled with loneliness, fear, uncertainty and trauma. Along the way, through small acts of kindness from a neighbor that fortuitously included a box of books, Pemberton decides to fight in whatever way he can.
A book and movie about Pemberton’s life sheds light on this country’s foster care system. Pemberton grew up in a number of foster care homes, and his book “A Chance in the World: A Orphan Boy, a Mysterious Past and How He Found a Place Called Home” was made into the film “A Chance in the World.” The film revealed the horrid and difficult conditions under which he lived with his last foster family, headed by Willie, played by Laurence Hilton-Jacobs, whom audiences love from playing Cochise in “Cooley High,” Charles in “Claudine,” Freddie ‘Boom Boom’ Washington in “Welcome Back Kotter,” Rommel in “Youngblood” and Joe Jackson in “The Jacksons: An American Dream.” Willie’s wife, Betty is played by Kelly Owens.
Pemberton grows up with the last name of Klakowicz, even though he is African-American. In the Robinson household, he is ridiculed mostly by the mother, Betty, and other foster siblings who have been placed in the home. He is verbally, mentally, emotionally and physically abused after being placed in this home when he is around 11 years old. When he has broken one of the many rules of the household, he is forced to recite sayings that really amount to him belittling himself such as, “I will never amount to anything in life.”
He is not allowed to read books in the mother’s presence, instead relegated to the basement where he escapes from reality and spends much time, when Betty doesn’t want to be bothered with him. While Willie is not as mean, he is also not as nurturing, but he can’t fully protect Pemberton.
Tom Sizemore plays John Sykes who after Pemberton is beaten badly in the Johnson home, takes the 17-year-old into his home and eventually becomes his legal guardian. Afterward, Pemberton successfully beats the odds and graduates Boston College.
This moving account spotlights a young man’s determination to move forward in life, inspiring us all to reflect on the current, problematic state of the American foster care system. The book and film recount Pemberton’s hurts and despair, but also his triumph against daunting obstacles. It’s a heart-wrenching but uplifting story of the human spirit’s ability to find hope, strength and forgiveness in the darkest of times.
I thought of Pemberton’s film while watching Mark Wahlberg in “Instant Family.” Wahlberg who plays Pete and his wife Ellie played by Rose Byrne decide to adopt a child, but they first end up fostering a 15-year-old girl and her two younger siblings.
This decision doesn’t come without its challenges, and first Pete and Ellie have to complete foster parents classes to see if they are prepared to be parents. They are not as prepared as they think, and the three kids raise as much hell as they can to disrupt the household. And while “Instant Family” isn’t based on a real-life story, and the arrangement becomes final when the couple is successful in adopting their three charges, it’s theme is the same—the scarcity of good, loving foster parents who are not in it just for the monthly check.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, on any given day, there are nearly 438,000 children in foster care in the United States. In 2016, more than 687,000 children spent time in U.S. foster care. On average, children remain in state care for nearly two years, and six percent of children in foster care have languished there for five or more years. I’m sure many of them are in households that are not treating them as they should be treated—like human beings.
However, “A Chance in the World” isn’t just a novel or a film; it is part of a movement that Pemberton and his wife, Tonya, have founded. The Chance in the World Foundation supports aspiring youth in an effort to help them reach their goals. Through Steve’s miraculous story, his memoir has inspired young people to persevere, to realize they aren’t alone and, most importantly, to realize the power of possibility.
The book has been updated with fresh reflections that have left so many readers forever changed. “Today, thousands of children are facing these same obstacles as I did and will grow up just to become abandoned by a system that failed them, without a chance at making it in the world,” Pemberton notes. “One understands the value of giving a chance the most when they, themselves, are given a chance. My book, the movie and my foundation all serve to raise awareness and to help throngs of children realize their full potential—to society’s collective benefit. If I had had the opportunity to read a story like mine and see myself reflected in a movie when I was a child, it would have changed not just one thing but everything.”
“Instant Family” also stars Oscar winner Octavia Butler and is still playing in some theaters or soon probably on digital outlets.
“A Chance in the World” is now available as a digital release via On Demand on local cable providers including Verizon, Xfinity, DIRECTV and Time Warner. A video that highlights a bit of Pemberton talking about the film can be found at :https://www.steve pemberton.io/.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader newspaper. She is also the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago.”