Author and Walgreens executive Steve Pemberton helped launch USM's $15 million Promise Scholars initiative by sharing stories of kindness and generosity, cherished moments for an orphaned boy who was often neglected and discarded.
"Nobody ever thought this was possible," said Pemberton, who managed to graduate from Boston College, serve as Walgreens' Chief Diversity Officer and build his own family. "I have a responsibility to tell this story."
A foster care worker once dismissed him as having "not a chance in the world."
"I took that phrase and took a word off," he said. The result -- "A Chance in the World" -- became the title of his best-selling memoir.
To a packed Hannaford Hall crowd, Pemberton described the neighbor in his hometown of New Bedford who sneaked him books, the teacher who inspired him with a rare smile as he competed in a spelling bee, and the mentor who took then-16-year-old Steve into his home.
They gave him chances, he said.
"It's very important that you not see me as exceptional," Pemberton said. "I'm not saying this out of false modesty. There is nothing exceptional about me."
Rather, people gave him chances, he said. And he made the most of them.
"If you get a chance, you have do something with it," he said. "That's the expectation. That's the deal."
The message was shared with the Promise Scholars initiative.
Earlier on Oct. 2, Pemberton shared another stage with USM President Glenn Cummings and the initiative's chairs, Carolyn and Richard McGoldrick. They announced the Promise Scholars' plan to raise $15 million to fund 20 new scholarships each year that would help disadvantaged youth from Maine attend USM by paying half their tuition and expenses. The McGoldricks conceived of the idea and seeded it with a generous gift that has now reached nearly $4 million in cash and pledges.
Pemberton implored USM leaders to "be bold" and predicted that the initiative could spread to other schools.
"You can be an example for the rest of the county," he said.
He also asked people to remember two photos that he shared. In one image, he stood with his wife and their three children. The other photo was of Pemberton as a small, smiling boy. He had unearthed the snapshot from his lengthy social work file.
Until he found the photo in 2009, he had forgotten what he'd looked like as a boy, since there so few photos were taken. He had gone so far.
Prior to his work for Walgreens, Pemberton was chief diversity officer and vice president of diversity and inclusion at Monster.com. In 2015, he was awarded the prestigious Horizon Award by the United States Congress, presented to individuals from the private sector who have contributed to expanding opportunities for all Americans through their own personal contributions, and who have set exceptional examples for young people through their successes in life.
"This is possible," Pemberton said. "Kindness and generosity can change the arc of people's lives."