The Real American Dream

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By Mark E. Smith

We often hear of the American Dream, but what does that really mean? In my home, it means a lot – because we’re living it.

This past week, I was in Atlanta, working with the Georgia Association of Medical Equipment Services, advocating at the Capitol and its Legislature for sustained mobility funding and disability-related services.

Before I left, my daughter and I sat at our kitchen table, and laid out our 2013 schedules, finances, and priorities. As a family – even though it’s just the two of us – we must be on the same page, as a team, pursuing my goals, her goals, and most importantly, our goals as a family building a legacy.

At just turning 16, my daughter is on her high school’s honor role, and on an Ivy-League track toward college, leaning heavily toward an ultimate doctorate in psychology. She plays and holds a seat not just in the school band, but regional orchestra, too, and is next auditioning for the state level in March. She’s a member of the National Thespian Society, where she acts, as well as serves as Secretary for her troop, and she’s a gallery-shown photographer. This summer, she’s attending George Mason University, where she was nominated as among the top 250 youth leaders in the country, and she’s also volunteering as a counselor at a muscular dystrophy summer camp. Yes, the kid is freakin’ awesome, nailing life at 16!

My career continues in full swing, where I have more corporate, advocacy, writing, and speaking projects lined up than in the history of my career, and what I’ve accomplished in just the first month of the year makes my head spin. Again, I was in Atlanta last week – recently back from Detroit! – now I have a radio interview, magazine columns (both in print and in process), a MDA Muscle Walk fundraiser, which I’m helping coordinate, an on-going book project, engagements in Nashville, and Los Angeles, and a full-time corporate job, message board, and weekly blog. And, that only gets me to mid March! (Then it’s Capitol Hill time, Abilities Expos… you get the idea….)

Yet, as a family, my daughter and I not only have to annually budget time, but also finances. We take money management very seriously in our home, where it’s not just about wealth-building and security, but “stewardship.” We believe that what we’re blesses with isn’t truly ours, but that we manage it for a greater good. We live totally debt free, put necessity before want, share with others, and give as much as we can to charity. We don’t live with a scarcity mindset, where we hoard for ourselves; rather, we live an abundant mindset, where there’s enough for us to really enjoy life and not worry, but we have the ability to give generously, as we believe giving to others is the absolute most fun that one can have with money (and, it’s the reason why we’re “stewards” of income – that is, to ultimately do good with it for others, as opposed to seeing it as ours to keep).

But, here’s what struck me about our 2013 family schedules, finances, and priorities meeting: We’re living the American Dream. In two generations – mine, now my daughter’s – we’ve changed our family tree beyond what many would deem possible. The number of firsts for us is astounding. Although a non-traditional family of just the two of us – there’s no mother figure in our family photos – we personify the American Dream.

See, it’s easy to look at me in a suit and tie traveling the country, speaking to audiences, or read my magazine columns, or know of my corporate career, or see me sunning on my boat or jetting off to Vegas, and say, Sure, Mark, life is easy for you when you and your daughter have money and opportunity….

However, the fact is, I was born into less than nothing, with the four generations before me living in abject poverty, all addicts, most serving prison time, none with an education, most just to steal and harm whoever they could. As I open some of my speaking engagements, On the day I was born, my grandfather was in prison, a lifelong criminal; my grandmother was a heroin-addicted prostitute; my father was an alcoholic, drinking in a bar at noon; and, as I was born on that day, I wasn’t breathing….

And, my family tree got worse from there. My grandmother called my mother on the phone and shot herself in the head, committing suicide. My grandfather died of a heroin overdose after endless years of prison time. Both my parents were Skid Row alcoholics, dead by the time I was 40. And, it all made sense, going back for generations on both sides of my family.

So, how did my daughter and I end up here today? Well, there’s been a lot of hurt, pain, struggle, and success in-between; but for me, it all started with getting myself in and out of a bathtub at age 11, where I simply learned that with unyielding tenacity and vision, my potentials could extend as far as I wished. I couldn’t just change the direction of my family tree, I could grow my own. …And, I did.

I was the first one ever to graduate high school in four generations. I was the first to go through college. I was the first to never serve jail time. I was the first to have a career. I was the first to own and invest. I was the first to not be an addict of any sort. I was the first to not do what those before me and around me had done, but to live by a radically different moral and ethical compass. I was the first to live the American Dream.

Yet, the climb has never been linear. Many of the ghosts of my heritage have chased me at times. At 17, I awoke in intensive care after my own failed suicide attempt. I got myself horribly in debt in my 20s. And, I have yet to sustain a life-long romantic relationship. Yet, every time I’ve fallen down, I’ve used second chances, which we all have, to make things right. I immediately got into counseling at 17; I worked my way out of debt in my early 30s; and, at this writing, I’m currently in counseling, striving to take accountability for a string of ended relationships, and get this whole love life thing right. Indeed, the beauty of the American Dream is it gives each of us the chance to change the directions of our lives at any time and redefine who we are. Again, we can get knocked down and fall down, but we have the chance and the choice to get up stronger every time. And, I’ve never passed on that opportunity.

And, while my daughter’s life hasn’t been a piece of cake, either – her mother ultimately unable to break free of her past and demons, to the point where she hasn’t been in my daughter’s life – my daughter has taken the torch of the American Dream, and ran with it. What we’ve both learned is that life isn’t what you’ve been born into; rather, it’s what you make of it, and despite hardships and hurt, you can move through it all, day by day, hurdle by hurdle, to success that you’ve earned by simply striving to do right – that’s living the American Dream.

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When a Smell Isn’t a Smelll

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By Mark E. Smith

My daughter and I were talking about the horrors of care facilities, and one in particular came up that I’ve visited, where the odor was overwhelming.

“They should hire you to fix that kind of place,” she said, with a belief in me that only an adoring daughter can have in her father.

“It’s not that easy,” I said. “See, in order to make it a better place, I’d have to get rid of the bad smell, and that’s a huge task.”

“How hard could that be?” she asked. “It’s just a smell.”

“Really hard,” I said. “The smell isn’t just a smell. It represents what’s called systemic issues. The smell is caused by much larger issues.”

“Like what?” my daughter asked. “Can’t you just get rid of a smell?”

“Not in this case,” I replied. “See, the smell is caused by overall improper care, from soiled bedding to poor hygiene care of clients. In order to get rid of the smell, you’d have to change the entire infrastructure of care.”

“How would you do that?” she asked.

“Well, you’d start with the management and work your way down – leadership is where accountability for the smell starts, but not where it ends. Every employee there is ultimately accountable.” I explained. “You’d have to change the way everything is done, retrain staff, probably fire some and hire some. But, once the smell was gone by dramatically changing the way everything is done, you’d have among the best run facilities in the country.”

“So, to get rid of the smell, you have to get rid of the real problems, and that starts with the people who run the place because they’re allowing all of the problems to happen, right?” she asked.

“Exactly,” I said. “You have to find the root causes and fix them. Someday you’ll learn in life that most often a seemingly small symptom is the result of a very complex cause – from relationships to business. … A smell is never just a smell in these cases. Always look deeper.”

…It’s That You Give


By Mark E. Smith

I recently had the privilege of attending our local fund raising gala benefiting the American Cancer Society. As I mixed and mingled, what struck me was that virtually everyone I spoke with was directly effected by cancer – many had been through cancer, and others were in the midst of treatment. All, however, had gladly paid the ticket fee, and were likewise bidding on items – that is, those effected by cancer were directly financially supporting the organization that helps those with the condition.

What occurred to me was that the cancer benefit was in stark contrast to benefits that I attend relating to physical disabilities, where there’s virtually no presence or support by those with the condition or other physical disabilities. In fact, at the last Muscular Dystrophy Association benefit that I attended, I was one of only three people with a physical disability in attendance among 200 or so individuals supporting the cause.

Interestingly, disability-related charities, like the MDA, have been cutting services in the past year due to dramatic drops in donations, and those with disabilities, ourselves, have been the first to become alarmed. The irony is, disability-related charitable funding is dwindling in large part due to our own blatant neglect as those with disabilities. When it comes to supporting disability-related charities, we, as those with disabilities, truly don’t financially support them – and it’s illogical. After all, our community is the one who benefits from such charities, so for us to allow them to fall by the waste side based on our own financial neglect is entirely self-defeating.

Now, you may be thinking, Mark, you’re stating an oxymoron. If we could afford to support disability-related charities,we wouldn’t need them in the first place. Disability charities exist because we’re a tremendously economically disadvantaged group.

And, such a statement is true – but only about half true. Approximately 33% of us with disabilities are employed, earning equivalent salaries to our able-bodied peers, some earning well into six-figure incomes. Yet, others with disabilities live on sizable monthly disability benefits, while others live on funds from legal settlements. No, not everyone with a disability is fortunate to have a meaningful income, but a segment does.

The question, then, becomes, why aren’t we, as those with disabilities, donating to our own community’s charities, especially those among us with incomes, rather than expecting the mainstream to do it – and worst of all, crying foul when they don’t?

Because we’re back to that I-got-mine attitude again, where it’s every person with a disability looking out for him or herself, with little thought toward our peers. But, that’s not how we make progress as a community. Rather, we make progress by supporting our peers when we’re in a position to do so, where we address our needs as a community, where we understand that when an additional person among us rises – through mobility, education, employment, housing, and recreation – we all rise a bit higher in the eyes of the mainstream. And, so supporting the charities within our own community – which is among our ultimate forms of self-empowerment – truly moves us closer to full social equality.

As those with disabilities, our formula for charitable contributions is a simple one: 10% of our pre-tax income should go to disability-related charities. If one earns $50,000 per year, one’s annual charitable contribution should be $5,000. That $5,000 would by two ultralight manual wheelchairs, dramatically improving the mobility of two individuals in need. That $5,000 could fund three residential access ramps, allowing three individuals freedom from the confines of their homes. That $5,000 could send nine children with muscular dystrophy to summer camp, a social experience that positively effects the rest of their lives. And, $5,000 would fund two communication devices, allowing two individuals to express themselves as never before.

Indeed, $5,000 is a great example because it shows what an enormous impact a middle-class income can make on others. By simply skipping that vacation and cutting back a bit on a few luxury purchases throughout the year, one family can make an immeasurable difference in the lives of many others. And, when one equips an individual with a wheelchair, ramp, or communication device, that individual is then able to better serve others, so an exponential growth of good work occurs, reflecting positively on all of our lives. That $5,000 “investment” in others can eventually build into $500,000 through the recipients’ good works paid forward over the courses of their own lives – that is, when you help someone, and they help someone, your initial investment keeps growing.

Of course, $5,000 is a specific dollar example, but 10% of one’s pre-tax income is the rule to live by. If one’s blessed with a $100,000 annual income, donating $10,000 to disability-related charities is great; but, if one earns $15,000 per year, $1,500 in donations is just as terrific. Even for someone just getting by on SSDI, saving $43 per month for charity sends a camper to MDA summer camp – that’s an enormously empowered, influential feat. And, time is money, too, where volunteering is also of tremendous importance – even if one can’t spare a dime, one certainly should be volunteering at a local center for independent living or MDA office or any disability-related charity.

So often people make charitable giving about finances. However, 99% of the time it has virtually nothing to do with our financial limitations, but everything to do with our priorities. And, as those with disabilities as a whole, we clearly don’t prioritize our finances toward supporting the charities within our community. I’ve mention some amounts that may startle some – as with if one makes $50,000 per year, one should give $5,000 per year to charity – but if one is living a financially-responsible life, and prioritizing serving one’s own community, donating 10% of one’s income is absolutely realistic. What’s more, those living on even the most limited means usually have some disposable income each month, whether it’s $30 spent on a video game, or $2 spent at the doughnut shop. Again, the ability to donate to a charity is rarely based on true financial limitations, but is based on our ability to prioritize how we spend our individual dollars, and it’s our obligation to prioritize our financial lives – skipping the video games or doughnuts, if required – so that we routinely contribute to disability-related charities.

While we should invest in others through charity simply because it’s the right way to live, we also gain in the process. An astounding benefit to charitable giving is that when we invest in others, we ultimately invest in ourselves, where our lives – almost magically and instantaneously – become brighter, more positive. The absolute fact is, the happiest, most content people that you’ll ever meet aren’t the richest, most famous, or most attractive; rather, the happiest, most content people you’ll ever meet are those who are truly dedicated to charitable giving. And, even the rich and famous state that the personal satisfaction of charitable giving trumps all in the end. Bill Gates of Microsoft, consistently among the richest people in the world, stepped down as CEO to focus full time on running his charity, donating $28 billion dollars to date. Gates has publicly stated that this is the happiest time in his life, and his wife, Melinda summarized their charitable vision, saying, “The premise of this foundation is one life on this planet is no more valuable than the next.”

In my household, I’m raising my daughter on a very similar charitable principle to that stated by Melinda Gates: We don’t purchase any luxury unless the exact same amount goes to charity, period. If my daughter wants to fly down to visit her great-grandfather during spring break in West Palm Beach, Florida, for golf lessons, her trip won’t cost $300, but $600 because the $300 cost of her trip has to be matched by an equivalent $300 charitable donation. And, I’m held to the exact same standard. We don’t get any luxury unless we contribute to others in the process – and if we can’t afford to match the luxury with a donation, then we simply don’t get the luxury. Although this means of personal charitable giving may seem over-the-top to some, it makes living an equitable life in consideration of others extremely simple.

I don’t know what your financial capacity is as one with a disability, but I do know that our community’s charities need your help. If you’re fortunate to be gainfully employed or have a meaningful income, a minimum of 10% of your pre-tax income should be going to charity. Or, even if your finances are a challenge, a few dollars or volunteering your time can make a tremendous difference in the lives of others. If you have a lot, give a lot, and if you have a little, give a little. And, in the end, that’s what it’s about: It’s not what we give to others that counts; rather, it’s the mere fact that we give to others that makes the biggest difference within our community.