As I sat in my bedroom trying to figure out if I should give up or keep going, I thought about how happy I was. Working with a team toward a common goal, I felt a sense of accomplishment and joy. I was happier than I'd ever been in my life. Free The Children was also filling a gap in many kids' lives. At an age when we were constantly being told by adults what to do, this was something we took on voluntarily. I knew in my heart I could not turn back. Too much would be lost. I was no longer the person I had been five months earlier. Besides, there was so much left to do. When I emerged from my room, I told my parents I was sorry, but I could not give up. "You always tell us that we have to fight for what we believe in. Well, I believe in this."
To my surprise, they understood. I think they were even proud. Later, I would learn that the roots of their understanding stretched back generations to the teachings of their parents.
When he was just nineteen, our father's father arrived in Canada from Germany during the Great Depression. He earned "suicide pay," fighting boxers in Toronto. It was dangerous work, but every bruised rib or black eye was in his mind a small price to pay for achieving a not-so-humble Depression-era dream. When he had saved enough money, he opened a small grocery store with our grandmother. They worked there day and night, closing only one day in twenty-three years to visit Niagara Falls.
That was how our father grew up: working in the store after school and on weekends. His dream, however, was different. He wanted an education. But he thought there was no chance for college. Then, in his last year of high school, his parents announced that they had saved enough over the years to make his dream possible. He was overjoyed.
Our mother, the second youngest of four children, was born in Windsor, Ontario, just across the border from Detroit, Michigan. She was only nine when her father passed away. At ten she was working weekends in a neighborhood store. There were lots of struggles. One summer her family's only shelter was a tent. Life was hard, but my grandmother, with only an eighth-grade education, taught herself how to type and then worked her way up from cleaning other people's homes to an office job at the Chrysler Corporation (she eventually headed her department). Through her stoic example, she instilled in her children the belief that they could achieve anything they wanted in life.
I was unaware of this history and I was also ignorant of my parents' commitment to supporting social issues. Although they were not activists, both were dedicated teachers who believed in teaching both inside and outside of the classroom. Whenever they had the opportunity, they tried to help us learn about the world and what we could do to make it a better place. These lessons didn't involve marches or protests, they were simpler than that. When we asked a question about the environment, it would lead to an afternoon picking up garbage in the park. A comment about the Humane Society would lead to a challenge to reserve part of our allowance to help the abandoned animals we saw on TV.
Our family history of helping combined to sway my parents. They knew about fighting for ideals and dreams. Our house remained a zoo and Free The Children continued to grow.
Yet if they had known what was coming next, they might have had second thoughts.