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African-American author, motivational speaker, and executive, Steve Pemberton (b. 1967), was in foster care as a child. 

Steve Pemberton was born as Stephen Klakowicz in New Bedford, Massachusetts. His mother, Marion Murphy Klakowicz, was an American of Polish descent. She struggled with alcoholism and died at the age of forty. His father, Kenny Pemberton, was an African-American boxing champion who was murdered at the age of twenty-six.  

Steve does not remember his parents, but wishes he could have known them.  

Kenny is still my father, Marion is still my mother, no matter what. I’m not going to judge — that duty is left to God (South Coast Today). 

When Steve was three years old, he and his three brothers were removed from their mother by the Department of Social Services. She would leave the children alone for days at a time, and they would dig through garbage in search of food. They often went hungry and were all severely malnourished. 

The brothers were separated in foster care. Social workers struggled to find placements for Steve due to his mixed-race. He had blue eyes, light skin, and a curly Afro as a child. Steve moved between multiple placements as a very young child.  

Then, at the age of five, Steve was placed with a family he calls the ‘Robinsons’. His foster parents, Betty and Willie were highly abusive. Steve was subjected to physical torture, food restrictions and emotional abuse. He was forced to live in the basement and forbidden to read in front of Willie, who was illiterate.  

I came to live not just in fear but abject terror, the kind that rises up and takes over every sense of your being. Years later, long after the hunger and beatings were no longer residents of my mind, it would be that fear that would be the last to leave (Pemberton, 22). 

Betty would perform loving care when it suited her, such as when Steve was first introduced to the family, and when he ended up in hospital because of injuries she had caused. Betty and Willie were “masters of manipulation” who presented as a loving family. They convinced social workers that the only issue was Steve struggling to adjust because of early childhood trauma and neglect.  

Reading was Steve’s saving grace. One day, a neighbour noticed him sitting on a wall reading a book. Her name was Claire Levin. Steve told her that he read the same book over and over again. She then turned up at his foster home with a whole box of books for him. Steve hid these, along with food in the basement. Thirty-five years later, Steve and Claire would reunite for the first time at Steve’s book signing in Dartmouth. 

Steve excelled in school. When he was in seventh grade, his guidance counsellor encouraged him to plan to attend college. But Steve did not know what college was. He was later selected to participate in Upward Bound, a national progamme led by the U.S. Department of Education which helps prepare high school students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds for college.  

Steve finally escaped his foster home at age sixteen. He was taken in by a teacher, John Sykes. The original plan was for Steve to only stay a week, but this was extended to a year. John nurtured Steve with fatherly lessons, and it was the best year of his entire childhood. 

Steve won a full scholarship to attend Boston College. At first, he struggled to find his place. He lacked a sense of home, and was unable to relate to his classmates who were excited about their newfound freedom living on campus.

I really struggled with fitting in. I was still trying to find home in a way because I had been in the foster care system (The Heights). 

Steve found acceptance within the housekeeping team where he worked during the summer after his freshman year. He joined the track team and the Black Student Forum. He also helped found the Talented Tenth, a support organisation founded by male African-American students at Boston College in the 1980s. 

Steve graduated from Boston College in 1989. For ten years, he worked in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. Then Steve became a human resources executive for top firms. He was the first Chief Diversity Officer for Walgreens, an American pharmacy store chain. Steve is now the Chief People Officer for Dublin-based software company, Workhuman. 

Steve met his wife, Tonya, while on a vacation in Martha’s Vineyard. The couple moved to Chicago to raise their three children, two sons and a daughter. 

Steve was working full-time and raising a family when he wrote his memoir, A Chance in the World (2012). It is a story of hope and perseverance. The book’s title came from a diary entry by Steve’s babysitter when he was a toddler, who wrote that the young boydidn’t have a chance in the world.In 2017, the book was released as a movie of the same name. Proceeds from the movie benefited organisations which support children in need. 

Steve’s second book, The Lighthouse Effect: How Ordinary People Can Have an Extraordinary Impact in the World was published in 2021. In this book, he shares inspiring stories about people in his life like Claire Levin and John Sykes. He describes them ashuman lighthouses” because of how they guided him during difficult times. Steve encourages readers to reflect on those who have inspired them to become lighthouses themselves. Steve hopes that he can promote understanding by sharing his story.  

When you share your story or elements of your story, what it does is it really does invite others to share their stories with you. And you realize these common threads, these common connections that we all have, or universal stories (The Heights). 

Steve is a highly committed advocate for children and young people in need. He served on the boards of several non-profits before he and his wife Tanya established their own charity. The A Chance in the World Foundation supports aspiring youth in an effort to help them reach their goals” by providing scholarships and education support for students in need.  

Steve is also a motivational speaker who promotes public awareness about foster care issues. He has been recognised for his work with a Trumpet Award and a Horizon Award by the United States Congress. Steve spends time with young people in foster care to share his message about fighting against the odds.  

This adversity that you inherited, you didn’t ask for it, you did not create it, but maybe this is your opportunity to right the wrong. That’s the power of adversity. It gives you strength (Washington Post). 


Daley, Lauren. “Abusive childhood transcends to triumph.” South Coast Today 9 Feb 2012. 

Klein, Allison. “After an abusive childhood in foster care, this executive sees success as his revenge.” Washington Post, 1 June 2018. 

Leighton, Elizabeth. “A Source of Light and Humility: Pemberton Embodies ‘The Lighthouse Effect’.” The Heights, 20 February, 2022.,and%20physically%20for%2013%20years 

Pemberton, Steve. A Chance in the World.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012. 

“Steve Pemberton.” Steve Pemberton website. 

Image available here.