One of those down-home stories that continue to make the e-mail circuit talks about a student who, on assignment from her psychology class, interviewed her grandmother and asked her grandmother to define success. The grandmother responded with: “Success is when you look back at your life and the memories make you smile.” What a beautiful definition of success, especially for those of us who are grandparents, great grandparents, and great-great grandparents, and can look back on those memories that make us smile, believing we did the best we could do to raise the children the Lord had blessed us with. But as every parent knows, no parent raises children without challenges nor free of heartache.

Nearly fifty-five years ago, shortly after my eleven-year-old son died in my arms, Joan and I combined our separate families into one — her six, my three (the boy that died is a part of our eternal family). As those who have combined families know this is not always easy to do. But we trusted in the Lord and today with sixty-four great grandchildren and several great-great grandchildren Joan and I often think back at our many wonderful memories, amidst the challenges — and smile. Each child, now in their sixties, are now smiling too as they look back upon their own grandchildren with their own special memories.

And, as if eight children were not enough to deal with, Joan and I took in two fatherless children, Chris at age eleven, Sam at age eighteen. Chris came to us through the state foster child program, Sam simply walked into our lives in 1981 after our other children were out on their own.

Sam, thrown out by his mother, and fatherless, had lived with several families in Las Vegas. He had been a star high school football player and received a football scholarship to Georgia Tech from Bill Curry. But Sam had no family or home in Atlanta. I spotted Sam in church the first Sunday he was in Atlanta and invited him home for breakfast. He moved in that afternoon. Joan and I became the family Sam didn’t have. He played on Curry’s championship football teams before graduating from Georgia Tech with honors. He then, instead of turning pro, chose to serve a church mission in Canada. He met Kim while on his mission and they later married. and now have four wonderful children and several grandchildren who call us grandpa and grandma. Today Sam is a very successful businessman and author who travels the world.

His successful book, My Orange Duffel Bag, is about his days as a homeless fatherless boy. The book outlines the seven steps he used to overcome the negative challenges of being a homeless fatherless boy. Soon after its publication Sam’s ‘My Orange Duffel Bag Initiative’ was created to help other boys and girls like himself, children in foster homes and/or from fatherless homes. The Initiative recently celebrated its tenth anniversary in helping fatherless boys and girls here in Georgia better understand who they are — a child of God — and how they can reach their full potential in life.

Several years ago, Sam called from the airport and said “Don, I’m in town on business, can I come out and stay with you a couple of nights.” Sam was in town to speak at a reunion of several hundred of the nearly 1000 youth who have graduated from the Orange Duffel Bag Initiative program. Their banquet was held near the campus of Georgia Tech University — with the president of the university in attendance. One of the speakers was Bill Curry, Sam’s former coach and life-long mentor and close friend.

When Sam came home that Monday night and told me of the success of his event both he and I had tears in our eyes. The high school graduation rate for the Initiative’s graduates is remarkable, with many going on to college — not into Georgia’s overcrowded ‘Monuments to Ignorance,” its prisons.

The memory of that day in March 1981 still brings big smiles to our faces. That day changed Joan and my life as well as Sam’s life — for the better. We gave Sam a family and Sam in turn provided us with many wonderful memories to look back on — and smile about. And he is now giving hope to many youths who were being shuffled around between foster homes but who now visualize a brighter future, with Sam’s help, to realize their God given potential.

Today Sam’s program is addressing a continuing national plague — the fatherless youth of America — while our memories of playing a minor role in Sam’s success create many pleasant smiles.

Donald Conkey is a retired agricultural economist who lives in Woodstock.


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