Once a nearly forgotten foster child, Steve Pemberton has become a beacon of hope

On the spring day in 1989 that he graduated from Boston College, Steve Pemberton — then known as Steve Klakowicz — had never felt so utterly alone.

Everyone else seemed to have arrived with a cheering section — parents and grandparents, siblings and cousins. But as a young man who had bounced from foster home to foster home in and around New Bedford, he had no such support, he had no family.

He didn’t even know who he really was.


“When my name was called it was really quiet — just some polite applause,” Pemberton recalled.

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“I realized I had been alone for so long. On that day of considerable accomplishments. There was really no one to share it with.”

Rather than wallow in sorrow, that day sparked a quest. Pemberton found both sides of his family — his white Irish-Catholic relatives, and his black Pemberton family. He wrote a remarkable memoir about the experience, “A Chance in the World.” He reclaimed his birth name. Along the way, he became a corporate executive, motivational speaker, and philanthropist.

Next week, Pemberton’s book becomes a feature film. On Wednesday night, it will be screened in 800 theaters across the country — including three in the Boston area — with the proceeds going to organizations that support children in foster care.

Pemberton, 50, survived and thrived through a combination of brilliance, tenacity, and just enough support to make it.


He was the product of an on-again, off-again relationship between a gifted prizefighter and his sometime girlfriend. They split for good when he was a toddler.

Though his mother attempted to raise him, she was an unsteady presence at best. The title of his book comes from a diary entry from one of his childhood baby sitters, who wrote, “This little boy doesn’t have a chance in the world.” (The baby sitter’s daughter shared the diary with him years later — just when he happened to be pondering a title for the book he was working on.)

When Pemberton was in the seventh grade, a teacher told him he could go to college, and handed him a brochure for Boston College. His first response: “What’s college?” He was intrigued when he was told it was somewhere you went for four years; he’d never lived in one place for four years.

At Boston College, the biracial foster child found perhaps his first place of belonging.

“It was my real first sense of family,” Pemberton said. “It was the place that accepted me without condition or reservation. That’s something to be said for a kid who’s not Catholic. When I didn’t know what my place was in the world, they said, ‘This is your place.’ ”


He’s now a member of the college’s Board of Trustees.

Finding his family has been a mixed blessing. After he began his search, a social worker gave him the last known phone number for his mother. When he called the number and introduced himself, a female voice said, ”We always wondered what happened to you.” It was his grandmother.

Their first telephone conversation lasted two hours. For the first time he learned that he had siblings. He also learned that he had been born a twin: His sister died when they were less than a week old.

Pemberton didn’t find his roots in time to meet his parents, who had both died turbulent deaths in the 1970s. “Addiction claimed both their lives,” Pemberton said. “That isn’t what is listed on their death certificates, but that is what claimed them.” Some relatives have been happy to meet him and forge relationships. Others have been frosty — one sibling rejected him on explicitly racial grounds. That’s their loss.

“It’s certainly not a perfect family,” he said. “Then again, no family is.”

Pemberton lives in suburban Chicago and works as an executive for a Massachusetts company called Globoforce. He has become an evangelist for children in foster care. He wants them to know that, no matter how turbulent their existence, they are not forgotten. They are not alone. His foundation is giving foster children tickets to Wednesday’s screening, and copies of the book. “I didn’t see a movie until I was 17,” Pemberton noted ruefully.

He knows, from experience, just how tenuous that existence can be. But he also thinks of the people who helped him: the teacher who told him he could make it, the Outward Bound director who said he was a leader, the other teacher who took him in as a high school senior when he had nowhere else to go.

“I did have these powerful interactions that let me know there was still goodness in the land,” Pemberton said. “That people were capable of kindness and love and generosity. Most of those interactions were quite temporary, but I held onto them.”

Many of them may never have known what they meant to a boy without roots or family, without a chance in the world.

“They were like lighthouses,” Pemberton says now. “Think about what a lighthouse is: It’s a beacon. It guides and directs, but it’s also resolute and also immovable. They were human lighthouses, and I set my life’s compass by them.”

Now his legacy is to serve as a guide for others searching for their path.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @adrian_walker.