When I was in high school, I coached boys football and basketball at my former junior high school. This was my first real job.
As a parent, I coached my boys’ soccer and basketball teams. I didn’t get paid for that; I was a volunteer.
I attended countless soccer, basketball, football, rowing, tennis games, matches, races, etc. I cheered for my boys’ teams.
I was never one of those parents who yelled at the refs. Even when they made a bad call.
My daughter played concert piano in junior high and high school. She attended an arts conservatory, once playing at Carnegie Hall during her senior year.
Between coaching and the boys and Bree, competitions were common.
As a coach, our teams won some. And we lost some.
As a parent, my children won some. And they lost some.
I taught my young players, and my young children to be good winners, and good losers.
Never would I allow poor sportsmanship, even if a ref made a bad call. Never did I allow complaining or whining the other team “cheated.” At the end of the game, win or lose, you look the other team in the eye, shake a hand, say “good game.”
What mattered more to me than the final “score,” was character.
Why? Becasue later on in life, all children need to know that things just don’t always turn out the way you want.
Sometimes you lose.
Life isn’t always fair.
Later in life, I competed for political office. I ran for United States Congress in 2018. And I lost. And my loss was public. I immediately called my primary opponent, the current Congressman who defeated me, Harley Rouda. We had breakfast a few weeks later. After Congressman Rouda was sworn in, I visited him at his office in Washington DC, congratulating him, even though he was in the “other party.”
I lost bad in the my first forray into poltitics. But I felt, for the sake of any of those players who still watch me with me (and some do), and, more important, my children, I must model good sportsmanship.
I’m in a meeting with Royal Family KIDS’ National Directors from around the world: Ghana, Namibia, Poland, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, the UK, Australia. All work with children of trauma.
The stories I’m hearing of neglect, abuse, and abandonment. Orphans living in Lord Of The Flies institutions with teen ringleaders bartering young girls like chattel to get drugs.
In some countries, there are no child protective services to keep the children safe. Refugee children living in tents. Children walking hundreds of miles with parents trying to seek asylum in safe countries. Four-year-olds wandering the streets.
But in the midst of hearing these realities, my mind drifts back to my own home.
Mostly what I’m thinking about are the millions children of privilege, “protected” by parents believing them too good to fail, stressing external success at all costs, shielding them from the painful realities of the real world. The facade of the “top university.”
Making sure their children stay away from “problem” children whose poverty or lack of education or broken home or blue-collar parents won’t lead them upwardly toward “success.”
Making sure their children spend more time on teams or with tutors or with coaches or in safe church youth groups — “safety,” versus the danger of a holistic life. Worse, the parents who will at all costs give their hight schoolers free reign to alcohol as long as they secure their desirable university.
Keeping them away from the poor kids. The neglected, abused, abandoned.
I once had a choice to send my own children to the local public school where 70% of the children were English learners from south of the border. Poor kids. The other choice was protecting them through homeschooling, or the local private school with all the children of rich white families.
I went to an expert for advice: A professor friend from UCLA who was on a panel of the UC Board of Regents, dealing with undergraduate education in the UC system. He was educated at the most elite private schools in France and did his Ph.D. at Oxford.
“Send them to the PUBLIC school. The diversity and dissonance and culture and language and the diverse sociological and economic standing will educate them far more than anything else.”
We obeyed; we tried the public school.
For one whole month.
Then I chickened out.
In any case, off they went to private and charter schools.
It could have been because I liked the status of sending them to the “better” schools, if I’m honest.
I was guilty, too. I wanted everything to be certain. Especially the well-being of my children. I want to “protect them,” too.
But I’m realizing that what we think is best, often isn’t. The brokenness of humanity and close proximity to pain and grief is perhaps the greatest education of all.
Richness has a poverty about it, poverty a certain sense of wealth.
Elliot is my youngest son. He is 17. He is a senior in high school. He doesn’t use Instagram and Snapchat and Facebook. He doesn’t watch television or movies or stuff on Netflix and YouTube.
Last year I had to take his phone away. He went without it for months. When I gave it back at the start of the school term, he said okay, but only if I restrict it for only calls and texting.
Elliot has told me a few times that he looks at “all these students” during school. “They are always on their phones. That’s all they do. They are not experiencing the world around them.”
“Dad, I think giving electronics to children, even teens, is bad for them.”
Elliot is an earlier riser; he’s up every morning, often at 4 or 5. He usually goes to bed at 8 or 9 at the latest. He often says, with a grin, “Dad, there’s nothing better than a really good night’s sleep.”
He never takes his phone into his bedroom. He leaves it in the kitchen. He says that texting is a distraction from studying or reading or spending time talking to friends and family, face-to-face.
Elliot doesn’t want a car. He rides his bike 3 miles to school every morning, often in the dark. After school, he rides his bike to the boathouse for rowing practice. At 6:30, it’s dark again, and he rides home.
He works at the boathouse on the weekends. He gets to work and back home on his bike.
Elliot says he prefers riding his bike because he doesn’t want to pollute the planet. He says riding a bike is better exercise. He says the experience of riding a bike is better than driving a car because you’re “so much closer to nature.”
Oh, and he doesn’t eat sugar. No soda. No candy. No junk food. He eats a very balanced diet. He works out 6 days a week. He is very committed to his health.
My other children are normal. They all use Instagram and Snapchat and Facebook on their iPhones. They all watch television and movies and stuff on Netflix and YouTube. They drive cars and stay up late and eat junk food.
Gina and I are normal. We use Instagram and Snapchat and Facebook on our iPhones. We watch television and movies and stuff on Netflix and YouTube. We drive cars and go to bed late and eat junk food.
Part of me thinks Elliot’s devotion is admirable. Staying away from screens, getting plenty of sleep, staying away from junk food, good exercise — aren’t those good things?
Sometimes, a part of me thinks his devotion is extreme.
But I never think my devotion to my social media is admirable. I never think my watching television and movies and stuff on Netflix and YouTube is worthy of praise. I never get feelings of pride that I went to bed too late or gouged on junk food.
Sometimes I wish I was more “extreme” like Elliot.
I am humbled and pleased to announce that I have been named President and Chief Executive Officer of Royal Family Kids, Inc. (RFK) — a California non-profit organization that brings healing and support to thousands of foster children each year who are victims of abuse, neglect, and abandonment.
As you might know, during my run for U.S. Congress, I received the formal endorsement of human rights crusader, Bill Browder. His story had captured my heart and, ironically, will now serve as a driving force behind my new work.
Bill, who founded an investment firm in Moscow in the 1990’s, was later named the top investment fund manager in the world. But on November 16th, 2009, when his tax attorney, Sergei Magnitsky, was tortured and murdered by associates of Vladimir Putin, he made a vow to seek justice for those responsible. He gave up his lucrative career to crusade on behalf of the many victims of Vladimir Putin and his accomplices.
In 2012, Bill’s work compelled the U.S. government to impose sanctions on the responsible Russian oligarchs. A new bill, called The Magnitsky Act, received overwhelming support from both houses of Congress.
Vladimir Putin immediately “retaliated” by banning the adoptions of thousands of Russian orphans to American families.
Because many of these orphans suffered from birth defects, fetal alcohol syndrome, HIV, and other ailments, many were effectively sentenced to death, given a lack of medical resources in Russia. Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets in protest of yet another one of Putin’s gruesome acts.
As a former Executive Director of an international youth campaign that encouraged and inspired thousands of at-risk teens, and as a former executive with the March of Dimes, a foundation devoted to helping newborns with birth defects and illness, you can imagine how Bill’s story touched me, especially Putin’s decision to penalize innocent foster children.
As I learned more about these orphans during the campaign I often asked myself, How might I use my influence to help the kinds of desperate children that Putin violated?
My answer came in mid-June when I received an email from an RFK representative who asked if I’d consider this role, and meet with their search committee. I took the meeting. For the past two months, I’ve been involved in a long process of informational meetings with RFK leadership, and many interviews.
Earlier this month, I was selected to lead the organization as the new President and CEO.
I really don’t have words to describe this organization. I’ve honestly never seen anything like it. This video is just a small sample of the work RFK does at its 5-day camps, treating children like Samantha as “royalty.”
During my campaign, I learned too well how divisive today’s political environment can be. But we can all agree on one thing. We can all agree that all minor children are innocent, especially those suffering from abuse, neglect, and abandonment. And given that approximately 80% of our prison inmates were former foster care children, and 60% of all child sex trafficking victims have histories in the child welfare system, I could think of nothing more compelling for my next step than leveraging my advocacy convictions — to bring real change to countless children.
Working in partnership with Child Protective Services in 40 states, RFK has helped change the lives of over 100,000 kids, over the past 30 years. This year alone, we will have encouraged and mentored approximately 10,000 kids. Like Samantha,
But with approximately 500,000 foster children in the system today, the work before us is daunting.
Three weeks ago, I attended my first RFK event, a 5-day camp with 71 children, ages 6 – 12. I served as a volunteer along with over 100 others who gave up their vacation time to work all day and night in 95-degree heat, mentoring and serving these precious children. I wrote about two of my experiences here and here.
Each camp has a “Birthday Party” with gifts and cake and ice cream and games — because so many of them had never had a birthday party before.
I learned that many camp counselors and volunteers end up adopting the children they mentored at camp.
The highlight of the week was when one of the boys at the camp, an 11-year-old named Miguel, who was a victim of physical abuse and severe neglect, asked me if I would be his father.
There are no words to describe how that moment — I realized there and then that hundreds of thousands of abandoned children like Miguel are in such desperate need of hope, affirmation, positive experiences, and love.
This new work of mine will be my part in helping those innocent children.
This post isn’t about my campaign. But in a way, it might be.
A little while ago, my son, Elliot, asked me about my ancestors. I shared a some of my memories with him. Then I decided to scribble some of what I remember in the form of a letter because memories become fixed when they are written down…
You have a very rich history with respect to your ancestors. I assume all people think that of their own families, but it’s just a fact of yours. Your ancestors, on both sides, have worked very hard to overcome very significant obstacles. On my side, I refer mostly to Nonna’s family, who I want to write about today.
After WWII most Europe, including Italy, was in total ruins. Think about that for a minute. Entire cities and towns were essentially leveled. Businesses had closed. Millions had died. My grandparents — my Nonna and Nonno — were dirt poor. They had nothing, like so many others. I remember going to their town in Umbria, Stroncone. Nonna told me that the German soldiers told them to flee to the hills if they wanted to live. Nonno would steal chickens to feed his family.
With grit and determination, they immigrated to America. That probably doesn’t sound like too big of a deal. But it involved unbelievable financial cost. And also it was scary — leaving your home, friends and many relatives for a completely foreign land. It was so expensive that half of the family moved there first (my Nonna and two of my uncles) so they could earn money in America. Then my Nonno came with Nonna and my other uncle. I don’t know if you remember the video that Uncle Tim made, but we have footage of Nonna getting off the plane when she was 12 and running to see her mother and brothers who she hadn’t seen in two years.
Some of their extended family came with them. Millions from Europe, in fact, fled. I remember Nonna saying that, at one point, they lived in a tiny two bedroom house with one bathroom. There was their family of 6, and another family of 5. Imagine.
It’s hard to describe how amazing my grandparents were. I just don’t know what to write. My Nonno was the most exuberant, happy, emotional in a healthy way, hardworking man. He was humble and the epitome of a “real man.” He laughed a lot. He used to rub his stubble on our face when we were little. It hurt but in that giggly kind of way. His garden in the front and back was just remarkable. He was a carpenter. Apparently, he fought in WWI as a young man in North Africa. They lived in Whittier, which is just about 30 minutes northwest of Costa Mesa. He worked in downtown Los Angeles. I remember him going to work and coming home because we spent a lot of time there when I was very young. Grandpa and Nonna owned a hair salon in Whittier so they would drop us off there.
My Nonna used to make this drink with milk, sugar, and egg. I remember the sugar sticking to the egg and it tasted like candy. (This is all sounding so old like it happened 100 years ago!) I have vague memories of her hiding my baby bottle. They were trying to get me to finally drink out of a real cup, or glass. She put it on a top cabinet shelf in her kitchen (which I still so remember). I saw it one day when she was putting dishes away. I looked up and cried and begged her for it. She said in her very broken English, “You can’t have it, there’s a snake inside it.” I would ask again from time to time and she kept saying the snake was still in there.
I don’t know if there’s a human being that’s shaped me as much as my Nonna. She was the most selfless individual I have ever met or even read of. All she did, almost quite literally, was care for others. All she did was work around the house and garden. Nonna used to yell at her, telling her to sit down during dinner because she would serve and clean while everyone else was eating. My Nonna would get so mad at Nonna. Eventually, she’d sit down but she would sit on the corner of the chair and reluctantly eat as if she was being punished. She didn’t know how to receive; she was all giving. She cared for animals as much as she cared for people. She would always dump out the water of our dogs, goats, horses, chickens, etc. and refill with clean water. She always wore a dress and usually an apron.
In retrospect, I’m certain this wasn’t completely healthy: self-care is vital. But I’m just telling you what she was like and that there was something about this kind of work ethic and selflessness that I find full of virtue.
When I was 18 I worked as a waiter. No cell phones in those days. My manager came to me and said I had an important phone call. I don’t remember who it was actually, but they told me my Nonna was in the hospital and I needed to go there immediately. Grandpa and Nonna were in Mexico on vacation. I got to the hospital and Nonna was unconscious. They said they could perform a surgery but the chances were high that she would have brain damage.
I told them I had to go talk to my Nonno. I drove to his house. He had this recliner chair that he would always sit in and watch TV. He lay in the chair, hugging an 8” x 10” photo of his lifelong soul mate. He was hysterical, crying “Oh God, Oh God, no, please, no.” Over and over and over.
I tried to console him. I asked him if he wanted to the doctors to perform the surgery. He couldn’t answer, he just kept holding the picture and crying. (I’m crying as I write this.)
I had to make the decision on what to do. They had been married for over 50 years.
I drove back to the hospital and told them, “no surgery.”
She died a few hours later. Then Nonna and Grandpa and family arrived and we all grieved and soon had her funeral.
(As an aside, we don’t know if she had Alzheimers or hardening of the arteries or both. But a few years before she died her mind started to slip. She forgot how to speak English. She’d steal things and hide them. She’d get really angry with us. It was really sad and in ways resembles what started happening to Nonna in the year before her stroke.)
Nonno eventually met another lady a few years later at his church (they were, of course, Roman Catholics). Her name was Jenny. She was Italian. They got married and were together for I think around 20 years until she died. She was a very nice lady, but not like my Nonna.
Nonno’s health eventually started to fade in his early 90’s. This was weird because he was such an incredibly strong man. I remember he had the strongest hands. I don’t know if he had an ounce of fat on him. Anyway, Nonna eventually took him in. When he was dying we were all around him.
I remember being in the bedroom with my sisters and Nonna watching him fade so vividly, though, for some reason, it seems more sad and real today in certain respects than it did then. I think Bree remembers the funeral and the memorial which, as the Catholics do, was open casket.
When we are younger — at least for me — we don’t care as much about stuff like grandparents, family, ancestors, etc. But even in writing this I can say for certain that nothing matters more to me than my family.
Maybe I will write soon about Grandpa and his family but I have to go now. But one more thing. Grandpa always talks about “La Familia” and how “It’s all about family.”