Steve Pemberton overcame not having a family and experiencing violent abuse because a few people he encountered “saw” him. He used his experiences to inspire the ASHA 2019 Convention audience at his keynote address. Pemberton reminded the listeners that their work not only changes the immediate lives of the people they serve but continues for years and through generations.
He started with the story of a kind stranger who saw a cute little boy living in foster care and for years occasionally brought him boxes of books her kids didn’t read anymore. Pemberton especially liked the mysteries, because his life was one big mystery about who he was? Who were his family? How did he end up in a violent home? He also learned hope from reading books like the classic “Watership Down,” in which a community of rabbits claws their way out of adversity to safety.
At his elementary school, his place of escape, he won the spelling bee every year. At one of those spelling bees, a judge communicated through a look and a smile that she could see him and all of the potential he had. Pemberton never forget that look or that judge.
Years later in high school, a classmate turned Pemberton on to Upward Bound. The program helps at-risk students achieve their dreams of going to college. He went to the informational meeting and the person running his school’s program was none other than that spelling bee judge.
Pemberton enthusiastically begin working in Upward Bound, making his way along the college track. He was still living in the same abusive home, and his foster family tried to pull him out of the program just because they saw how much he wanted to succeed in it. He couldn’t tell the counselor serving as the school liaison for the program about his situation. Any hint that he told someone what was happening in the home put Pemberton in physical danger.
The counselor saw what Pemberton was trying to convey without actually saying it and recommended he remain in the program.
During winter break of his junior year, Pemberton escaped the abusive home in an episode nearly causing his death. He still carries those physical scars with him. The social worker trying to find shelter for him couldn’t find even a temporary home. Hours into the process he asked Pemberton if he knew of anyone who might take him. Pemberton said no at first and then thought of the counselor. School was out, so the social worker expected to only be able to leave a message.
This school counselor surprisingly answered his office phone. And he not only welcomed Pemberton into his home for the holidays, but for the next year and a half. He also helped Pemberton win acceptance into and get scholarships for Boston College.
These three people served as lighthouses for his life, Pemberton says. They offered direction, correction, and protection for his journey without asking for anything in return.
The ASHA 2019 keynote presenter ended by telling the audience that their goal of making sure communication is a human right will have a generational impact. Audiologists and speech-language pathologists might not realize it in their time with a student, client, or patient, he says, but their work will continue to change lives of everyone around and who comes after that person.
Pemberton’s words and personal story of how various acts of communication—from sharing hand-me-down books to a significant look and smile to a conversation with a school counselor resulting in a safe home and a college degree—changed the course of his life. And changing his life changed the course of the lives of his wife and children.
As the applause faded, attendees commented on how inspired they were by Pemberton. They felt he seemed to understand how crucial their work is. And they liked his reminder of how the connections they make can change a person’s life—and the lives of those around them. One SLP said it reminded her to not take advantage of the difference she can make.
According to SLP Lesley Edwards Gaither, a Howard University doctoral candidate: “His story helped me see how communication and making connections can help those we serve achieve things beyond expectations and long after we work with them.”