Resilient Spirits
Isaiah Kacyvenski's family
When NFL player Isaiah Kacyvenski was a child, his parents had a hard time making ends meet. At times, his family was homeless. "We were huddled up, seven of us in a tent, and just kind of basically sleeping on top of each other," Isaiah says. "We went to the bathroom in an outhouse, basically just a hole in the ground."

The family often went for long stretches without heat and food. Isaiah can remember eating popcorn for weeks at a time. "I have very strong memories of not having enough food and searching garbage cans," his sister Catherine says.

To make matters worse, Isaiah says his father, David, was an alcoholic who would "flip out at the drop of a dime." Isaiah remembers even being afraid to tell his father when he was sick. "We would walk around on eggshells all day. I remember playing around the house, if something would break, it didn't matter what kid it was, we all had to line up, drop [our] pants, and he would just whip us," he says. "I remember not being able to sit for a week at a time, just in so much pain."
Isaiah Kacyvenski with his mother, Margaret
Isaiah says it was his mother, Margaret, who kept the family's spirits alive. "My mom got me through everything. I think her love to us is a testament of what love can do," he says. "She gave me the attitude that I can conquer anything."

By age 9, Isaiah says he was determined to live a better life. "That was my dream growing up," he says. "I wanted a wife. A dog. A white picket fence. Your 2.5 kids. I just wanted a normal life that I saw my friends have."

He knew that college would be his ticket out of poverty and that football would get him there. Throughout high school, Isaiah set out to become the perfect student and athlete. He worked out at 5 a.m., and then went straight to school to ask his teachers questions. "If I didn't understand something, I was going to make them explain until I understood each problem," Isaiah says. "I knew I might fall short on some things, but it wasn't going be because I didn't work hard enough."
Isaiah Kacyvensk
By his senior year in high school, Isaiah was an honor student and captain of the football team—but his life would take a terrible turn. On the morning of a big playoff game, he awoke to some terrible news—his mother had been struck and killed by a truck. "I remember dropping to my knees and just crying uncontrollably," he says. "That day, I can honestly tell you something died inside of me."

Isaiah says he didn't want to sit at home "wallowing in sorrow," so he decided to play in the big game. "To me, it was going be the best thing to get me through it," he says.

During the entire hour and a half bus ride to the game, Isaiah says he sat in the back of the bus and cried. "I stepped on that field, and I didn't think I was going to be able to play. I started to second guess myself," he says.

Then, Isaiah says he felt his mother's spirit. "It was like something ignited inside of me," he says. "I just went out and played, and played one of the best games of my life."
Margaret in her Harvard sweatshirt and Isaiah in his Harvard uniform
A few months later, Isaiah got a phone call he never expected...from Harvard University. "I thought it was a joke when they came calling," he says.

Having never dreamed of going to Harvard, Isaiah wondered if he would fit in at the elite university. "The coach said, 'Years down the road, you're not going to ever regret going to Harvard,'" Isaiah says. "And it kind of dawned on me when he said that—why would I regret going to Harvard?"

During his freshman year, Isaiah discovered an old photograph of his mother wearing a Harvard sweatshirt. He says it was proof that he made the right decision. "It hit me right in my heart," he says. "I think it's a sign that [meant], 'You're on the right way, son.'"

Shortly after finding the photograph, Isaiah found a passage highlighted in his mom's Bible: Isaiah: 49, which talks about how a mother never forgets her son. Coincidentally, 49 was the number Isaiah was randomly assigned by the team. He says he still keeps that verse in his locker. "It's kind of funny to me [with] such a brutal sport as football, it's love that got me through to that point. Looking back at my life, she was that guiding light to get me through all those tough times."
Isaiah Kacyvenski played in the Super Bowl for the Seattle Seahawks.
Isaiah graduated from Harvard with honors as a pre-med major and led his team to their first Ivy League title in nearly a decade. "The reason that he's been able to achieve all his goals is he's driven," says Harvard Coach Tim Murphy. "I've never met a kid with stronger desire and bigger heart."

After college, Isaiah fulfilled his childhood dream to play in the NFL. In 2006, Isaiah was team captain of the Seattle Seahawks and helped lead the team to the Super Bowl. Today, he plays for the St. Louis Rams.

Instead of using his tough childhood as an excuse, Isaiah says he learned how to turn poverty into a motivator. "I didn't want to fail because I realized how I was living at a young age, and I wanted a family when I grew up," he says. "I was bound and determined to do that. ... It was my past that helped motivate me to become what I wanted to be."
Isaiah Jr. and Lilliana
Now, Isaiah is living the life he's always dreamed about. In 2002, he married his high school sweetheart, Lauren. "She's been with me every step of the way. She [was] with me when I didn't have anything," he says. "She actually had to give me money when I was with her at first and through college."

Together, Isaiah and Lauren have two children, Isaiah Jr. and Lilliana. "They're the light of my life," Isaiah says. He says he works to be a positive influence for them just like his mother was for him.

Since Isaiah grew up without a lot of money, he says he continues to live frugally. "My wife could attest to that," he says. Isaiah even forgot to pick up his first signing bonus check—worth hundreds of thousands of dollars—because he was so focused on his work! He says he's still getting used to luxuries like dry cleaning. "I never had dry cleaning in my life. What is this stuff about dry cleaning? Just throw it in the washer. You're fine," he jokes.
David Kacyvenski
Isaiah's father, David, has been sober for 16 years, but it wasn't until recently, when they spoke about the beatings Isaiah and his siblings endured as children, that they began to have a healthy father-son relationship.

David says he also grew up in an abusive household, and his father was an alcoholic. "Alcohol had taken over my life, and I didn't like what I was doing. I didn't like the pit I was in," David says. "But I didn't know how to break that pattern until I got into recovery."

Isaiah says he confronted his father after he had his own kids. One day, David picked Isaiah up from the airport and they spent the hour and a half ride talking. "I said, 'How could you do this to a kid? To five kids?' Like a man, he stood up," Isaiah says. "He said, 'I screwed up my life. I screwed up almost my whole part of my life.' And that's one of the first times he had said that face to face to me and it meant a lot."

Isaiah says he's now forgiven his father and is proud of him. "You always remember your childhood," Isaiah says. "But my dad, he's put so much work into trying to get himself better [and] I know how difficult it was."
David Kacyvenski receives his son's Harvard diploma.
Although he had permission to attend his Harvard graduation, Isaiah chose to attend training camp for the Seattle Seahawks instead. "What I took away from Harvard, it was the experiences and meeting the people," Isaiah says. "I didn't need a piece of paper to validate that."

Instead, Isaiah says he chose a stand-in very near and dear to him—his father, who never attended college. "He had worked so hard to better his life and get his life on track," Isaiah says. "It was just an honor for me to be able to have him represent himself and my five siblings and my mom."
Chef Jeff Henderson grew up in a poor, inner-city neighborhood.
Executive Chef Jeff Henderson has sliced and diced his way to the top of his profession. He became the top chef at Café Bellagio, a bustling Las Vegas eatery, and author of the book Cooked, but there was a time when he was better known for his cocaine than his cooking.

As a child growing up in a poor, inner-city neighborhood in Los Angeles, Jeff says good role models were hard to come by. His father left when Jeff was just 2 years old, and his mother struggled to support her children by working two jobs. Jeff says he and his sister were left alone a lot of the time to fend for themselves.

Neighborhood drug dealers and petty criminals became the most influential people in Jeff's life. "We didn't have the doctors and the lawyers and the people who were going to college [to look up to]," he says. "The guys that I looked up to had all the gadgets and trinkets of the fast life. I eventually modeled my life after theirs."

Jeff was arrested for theft when he was 15 years old. Soon after, he says he started selling marijuana and crack cocaine. "I was making up to $35,000 a week," he says.

By the time he was 21, Jeff was one of the biggest drug dealers in town and a "neighborhood legend," he says. "I thought I was on top of the world—I was the man. ... We lived the lifestyle that was a dream. It felt good to be somebody."
Chef Jeff talks about his life-changing incarceration.
For years, Jeff made big bucks dealing drugs. Then, his high-rolling lifestyle came to a sudden end. Federal agents raided his home and arrested him for drug trafficking and conspiracy.

A jury sentenced Jeff to 19 years in prison. "The worst day of my life was after the reality of being locked up set in," he says.

Soon, Jeff says prison became a catalyst for change. He began watching television news programs like 60 Minutes and reading newspapers. He also finished his first book, Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? by Haki R. Madhubuti, while behind bars. "I started to believe I was smart," he says. "I wanted to learn more."

Jeff enrolled in the prison's GED program. He also spent time coming to terms with the consequences of his choices and his regrets. "I saw a lot of things that I will remember for the rest of my life," he says. "[I saw] deaths, crack babies, men and women who were strung out on crack cocaine."
Chef Jeff in the Cafe Bellagio kitchen
A few years into his sentence, Jeff began working in the prison's kitchen washing pots and pans. Although the work was strenuous, the rewards made all the suds and sweat worthwhile.

Jeff was promoted from dishwasher to cook, and fellow prisoners began to appreciate his culinary skills. "I was being praised for my food like when I was on the street [and] I was praised for having good drugs," he says. "I was experimenting with food and putting out great pastries and entrees. People were, like, 'Wow, is Jeff in the kitchen today?' It felt good to get those pats on the back for something positive."

Determined to "be somebody" once he was released, Jeff made it his mission to become a chef. After reading an article in USA Today about the top black chefs in America, Jeff began writing the chefs letters from prison, asking for a job upon his release. Chef Robert Gadsby and Chef Sterling Burpee replied. They offered Jeff a job as dishwasher in their Beverly Hills restaurant, and he accepted.

In 1996—after only having to serve nine years of his sentence—Jeff began his first job in the restaurant business. Slowly, he worked his way up the ladder.

Years later, he found himself running a restaurant in one of Las Vegas's most famous hotels! "I feel blessed," he says. "There [were] so many people who helped me, and I got so many great opportunities after my release from prison. ... I'm very grateful and humble."
Jeff says being sent to prison saved his life.
Jeff says prison may have actually saved his life. If he had stayed on the streets, he says he might be dead by now. "I pretty much got rescued from the streets," he says.

After prison, Jeff says success didn't come easy. He had to work to change his image before people could look beyond his troubled past. "I had to kind of re-image myself," he says. "When I went into corporate America, it was challenging for me. I couldn't understand why I couldn't get a job. I had to learn to smile. I had to learn to shake hands. You know, all these different things that make the felony become transparent."

As a convicted criminal, Jeff says people were intimidated by him. "I had the record," he says. "My rap sheet was longer than my résumé."

To get through the tough times, Jeff remembered the most important lessons he learned during his incarceration. "I am somebody," he says. "I'm proud to be an African-American, and I am smart. Those are the key things."

Oprah thinks Jeff's story can inspire young black men who are searching for positive role models in their lives. "I think you are a really remarkable success story," she tells Jeff.
Laurie Johnson with her husband Clyde and son Macallan
As a young girl, Laurie Johnson says she always thought that as long as she obeyed the rules and obeyed God, she would be rewarded with a happy life and a happy ending.

For awhile, blessings filled Laurie's life with joy. She married Clyde, her college sweetheart, and after years of trying to conceive, she gave birth to their baby boy, Macallan. "The three of us became this trio and we needed nothing else," she says.

In 2002, Laurie and her husband asked a friend to fly them to Idaho in his private plane to celebrate Macallan's 2nd birthday. "Macallan was this lively bundle of energy," she says. "He was running around on the tarmac, and he had his little sunglasses on and his baseball cap."

As they took off and ascended into the clouds, Laurie says she looked back and saw that contentment on her son's face.

Then, 15 minutes into the flight, something went terribly wrong.
Laurie describes the crash that killed her husband and son.
Something inside Laurie told her that their flight wasn't going right. When she looked out the window, she says she noticed that the trees seemed too close and the mountains looked like they were directly in the plane's path. "I didn't even have a chance to think of what was happening," she says. "I was in this shock. I remember hearing Macallan. He just cried, and it was this cry of nervousness. That just panicked me."

The small plane lost altitude fast. Then, it suddenly crashed, exploding on impact. "I could feel the heat," Laurie remembers. "I knew we had to get out. I remember going into some kind of craziness, and I started screaming, 'Get my baby!'"

Clyde lunged into the inferno to try to rescue Macallan. Laurie says she screamed for her son, but when Clyde returned he said, "I'm sorry, but I didn't get him out."

As Laurie lay on the ground next to the plane, she says she could see her son still strapped in his car seat. He had died moments after impact.

Stranded in a remote area, the pilot left Laurie and her husband, who had burned more than 75 percent of his body, behind to search for help. Five hours later, rescuers finally arrived. "We were getting loaded onto the helicopter, and there was this man sitting there in a seat and his head was like the size of a pumpkin," Laurie says. "All of a sudden his hand just raised up in this small wave and as soon as he did that I went, 'Oh, my gosh, that's Clyde.' I didn't even recognize him. I looked at him, and he mouthed to me, 'I love you.' Those were the very last words I ever heard from him."
Laurie talks about the pain of losing her son and her husband.
In one tragic day, Laurie lost her son and her husband. She escaped with a severely broken leg and bruises.

After losing her family, Laurie says she struggled with suicidal thoughts. "There were days I begged to die," she says. "I didn't want to live without them. Death was just a bottle of sleeping pills away, and I remember being so angry at God and asking him, 'Why did you have to take both?'"

To mend her broken leg, Laurie went through a series of operations. After each surgery, she says she would become very angry and depressed. "[I would] just feel like, 'Am I ever going to get out of this cycle? Am I ever going to heal?'" she says.

As time went by, Laurie decided suicide wasn't the right answer. "I knew that my life was not mine to take. It was a gift given to me, and it wasn't my possession to take," she says. "Also, those around me had suffered so much ... I thought I couldn't contribute more to that."

Laurie says she was angry at God for a year and half. Then, she made a decision that changed how she looked at her life.
Laurie learns to move forward and forgive.
Instead of suppressing her grief and anger, Laurie got honest about her emotions. "I thought, 'Why not get angry? What else can [God] do to me?'" she says. "It gave me the sense of freedom to feel what I had to feel and go through what I had to go through."

Then, Laurie says she realized she could think of what was taken away from her or she could think about what was given to her. She decided to focus on her blessings. "I was given a great life," she says. "I had this great little boy. I had a wonderful marriage. I had a great life. To sit there and to be angry that they were taken would deny that wonderful life I had with them."

Laurie has also learned to forgive. When the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the plane crash that killed her loved ones was caused by pilot error, she dealt with her emotions head on. "Forgiveness, I believe, is something that we give to ourselves," Laurie says. "It's a choice we make, and it frees me up of any anger or hate. It doesn't mean I wasn't angry. It doesn't mean I wasn't jealous of him and his family. But once again, I just dealt with those emotions."

Following the crash, Laurie was on crutches for two years. Since then, she has created something positive from her tragic experience—LemonAid, a company that creates designer crutches. Fifty percent of all profits are donated to Step With Hope, a foundation dedicated to helping people cope with profound loss. She also has a fresh outlook on life.

"Instead of living this life of expectation and rules and formulas, I feel like I live this life of curiosity," Laurie says. "I have no clue what's going to happen tomorrow, so I just take this moment to be here. To meet the people I get to meet. To be surrounded by the events and the experiences."
Rhonda blames herself for the deaths of her parents.
When Rhonda Britten was 14 years old, she witnessed a crime that destroyed her life for two decades—she saw her father kill her mother and then turn the gun on himself.

After that tragic day, Rhonda says she was plagued by guilt. "I pretty much blamed myself," she says. "[I thought], 'I'm the only witness. I'm sitting there with the gun, and I'm watching this whole thing unfold.' I believed that somehow I should have been able to stop it. I should have been able to save my mother. I should have been able to do something."

Rhonda says she felt worthless and powerless. For the next 20 years, she put herself through hell. "I personally tried to kill myself three times," she says. "I felt that I didn't have a right to live. If I wasn't able to save [my mother's] life, how did I have a right [to live]?" Rhonda also abused alcohol to dull the pain.
Rhonda decides to turn her life around.
After Rhonda's third suicide attempt, she was faced with a critical decision. "I realized that I had to decide who I was going to be," she says. "I had to be willing to let go of the past. I had to be willing to focus on the future and let go of what was."

Rhonda put her tragic childhood behind her and became a life coach in 1996. Now, she's the author of four books, including her best-seller, Fearless Living.

Making the decision to move on is just the first of many steps to overcoming tragic circumstances, Rhonda says. "Lots of people make decisions, but they don't live by them," she says. "They don't take personal responsibility."

Rhonda believes people should face—and embrace—their fears. "When you accept your humanity, when we accept that we're human and have feelings, we actually get to experience the divine," she says. "You've got to believe that inner voice. We all need support, but I also think at a turning point for everybody when they need to change their life or want to change their life is they have to sit and say to themselves, 'No one's going to change it but me.'"