The first time I saw Lisa Fenn, it was the summer of 2013 and she was on my TV screen. I remember where I was standing in our Family Room, how the sunlight was streaming in the window. As I listened to the ESPN story of her connection with Leroy and Dartanyon, I remember thinking, very matter of factly, “I probably need to know her.” Today, she is one of my closest friends, often able to understand a side of my world that few in my “regular life” can. My connection to the story of Lisa, Leroy and Dartanyon actually began more than a decade earlier. As a producer of “Miracle Stories” for Akron Children’s Hospital, I had been assigned to tell the story of the train accident that had severed Leroy’s legs and the care the hospital provided that allowed him to live. But when I pulled up to his home on Laird St in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Akron, it was my first exposure to the life of people who were barely surviving, not living. That experience planted the seed for an interest in understanding generational poverty that I would begin to explore years later in my life. In 2010, I started the Get Connected program as a volunteer with United Way. Through the program, I began to hear the stories of the challenges that the students in our city schools were dealing with, students I saw had great potential if given the proper support. Over the next few years, I began to form my own relationships with a few students and, only then, did I truly begin to understand. I remembered what I had seen when I visited Leroy’s house years before. I didn’t have the tools to know how to help Leroy at that time. But through my work with United Way and in our community, I was beginning to build my toolbox.
Watching the Carry On story in the summer of 2013 was one of the influences that gave me permission to keep following these instincts in my heart to get more personally involved in helping the kids I was meeting. Now Lisa has written a book about the Carry On story. It is a remarkable read and one I would like to recommend for a book discussion in any community looking at how to break cycles of generational poverty. Not because we need to follow the script that led to Leroy and Dartanyon’s success, but because we need to figure out how to do things differently. Leroy and Dartanyon had to leave their city and families, with emotional support from Lisa and financial support from benefactors, in order to get to an environment where they could learn to succeed. But the reality is that few kids have the chance to have their stories shared on ESPN or have anonymous donors fund their journey to success. But what they can receive is the emotional and life skills support that Lisa provided for Leroy and Dartanyon.That is what we are trying to achieve through Get Connected.
In my community of Canton, we are all trying to figure out how to create an environment where every one of our citizens, especially the young adults, feels connected. We want our kids to have skills, opportunity and the support to succeed, without leaving home. It means taking a hard look at a lot of things, from how we utilize grant dollars, to how our schools are teaching, to unacknowledged patterns of civic behavior regarding “who matters” and “who doesn’t”, to cultures within families that set kids up for failure.
It starts by listening instead of talking. Then it requires each of us to be leaders in the worlds where our voices hold clout. It requires all of us to share our social capital with the vision of a united Stark County where everyone has the connections and opportunity to succeed. But it also requires us to act on one of the strongest lessons of the book: that love and understanding can go a long way in creating bridges across the things that divide us. If you want to get an inside look at the challenges some kids face, please read this book. If you’ve ever said “Why don’t those people just…”, please read this book. Then give yourself permission to be part of the solution. You won’t regret it.