Picture this child. From 10-15 years old, he works in a liquor store part-time, where patrons often hung out at the register, drinking alcohol while playing a weekly card game. He does odd jobs throughout the liquor store, like chopping blocks of ice, stocking shelves, stacking crates, moving empty barrels of beer and cleaning dirty tappers and buckets. For this work, he earns candy, baseball cards and a little money. On Sundays, he sells squares for a neighborhood football pool, hoping to make extra cash. He reads mail out loud to his non-English-speaking, immigrant parents who are a janitor and a baker. He is an over-achiever in athletics, but an under-achiever academically.
Who did you picture? Did you picture me?
Growing up, I was on the precipice of becoming a sad statistic. But my parents, coaches and mentors believed in me. My parents instilled work ethic, commitment and drive. My coaches and mentors held me accountable while having my back. Because of that, these people gave me what too many kids who are in a similar situation don’t receive – an opportunity. That is why I am where I am today.
Wednesday night and Thursday morning, I went to two very different, yet extremely similar, events that made me reflect on my path as a child.
First was the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic (CJP) “Think Big” Gala on Wednesday night. It wasn’t a promotional event for the group’s new CD or an upcoming concert; it was a celebration of music and positively impacting the lives of young musicians from inner city Chicago. Anybody who knows Medix knows that our core purpose is to truly positively impact lives, so I was honored to be at this event with my wife, a few friends and some Medix teammates. Together, we listened to young musicians perform with brand new instruments that were donated to them through the Charles M. Danish Scholarship. CJP Artistic Director Orbert Davis created this scholarship in memory of a beloved teacher who drove him many miles each week to trumpet lessons. When Orbert became a professional musician, he wanted to pay Mr. Danish back for the years of believing in him and going the extra mile to foster him as a musician. Mr. Danish would not accept payment and told Orbert to return the act of kindness to other aspiring musicians. Thus, this amazing scholarship was born!
During this event, we also listened to a CJP performance (one of the amazing songs played was my wife’s and my first dance song from our wedding, “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”). We also learned more about the two-week long summer Jazz Camp, where CJP gives the opportunity for young, passionate musicians to learn firsthand from professional musicians and make new friends with similar interests. Aside from the precious learning opportunities, it takes inner city kids off the streets and sets them in a safe place with mentors who want to build them up and provide them with even more opportunities.
Looking around the room, I had a similar feeling I have during sporting events – an amazement of how music and sports can bring together people of all kinds to celebrate life. I left the event with my wife and this great feeling of joy from seeing the CJP positively impacting so many lives. This was the third day in a row this week that started at 6 a.m. and ended at midnight, but this feeling made me forget the exhaustion! Then Thursday morning, after hitting snooze on my alarm from 5 till 5:30 a.m., I was tempted to skip the Executive Club Chicago CEO Breakfast about diversity leadership. However, I kept hearing my assistant’s voice in my head reminding me I committed to it, so I scraped myself out of bed and headed back to the city.
I went from the joyful, Wednesday night gala where we helped impact children from Chicago’s underprivileged neighborhoods to fast-forwarding nine hours to a “business-y” CEO breakfast, where we heard heartbreaking and disturbing statistics about Chicago crime, incarceration and unemployment. The gentleman speaking kept saying it’s not that Chicago has a crime problem; we have an economic problem. If people in lower-income communities had access to real jobs and opportunities, the city would change course and move into a positive direction. Access to jobs would lead to buying homes, starting businesses and providing a better overall future for the communities. It became apparent to me that we all need to stop talking about how to fix the problem and instead start taking action, believing in these people and giving them opportunities, like my mentors did for me, and like Orbert Davis and his business partner, Mark Ingram, do for young musicians.
After this fire was lit inside me, I went home at a decent time for the first day this week. While watching the news, I saw something that was not only disheartening, but downright scary. Lee McCullum, a young man featured in CNN’s “Chicagoland” 2014 documentary about Chicago violence was shot and killed. Lee was an inspirational figure on the show who was working himself out of a bad situation; he was 22. This shook me. Is this what happens to bold people trying to shine a light in underprivileged neighborhoods? They get shot? I got scared for those amazing CJP jazz camp kids living in those areas. I also got even more scared for the kids who didn’t have athletic opportunities like I did or the chances the jazz camp kids have – what alternatives do they have? What the CJP jazz camp kids and I have in common is that our gifts helped open doors to people who believe in us. But what happens to the kids who have neither? What I wanted to do was go to those neighborhoods myself to create opportunity. As a father and husband, can I put myself on the line like that? No, I do not believe I could do that to my family.
As I’m writing this, I feel very confused. I’m committed to leaving Chicago a better city, but doing this is going to be a lot tougher than I thought. However, the Medix team and my path forward will become apparent, thanks to our core purpose of positively impacting lives and our core values of Desire to Serve Others, Willing to do What Others Won’t, Never, Never, Never Give Up and Locking Arms to Achieve Goals. We’re in this together, and I believe we cannot hit the next level with our personal and societal goals without someone believing in us and returning the favor to someone else.