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Hero of the 'Hood

Mike's Gift
By Paula McDonald, author of Hero of the ‘Hood, Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul II

The first time I met Mike Powell, I drove north at dawn from Mexico where I live to interview this unknown teenager in South Central Los Angeles. I'd heard from a friend of a friend that Mike had an interesting life story, and finding interesting stories is how I make my living. I've been good at it, and in 25 years of being a writer I've been told that a couple of my stories have changed some people's lives. Only this story, though, changed my own life forever.

Late, late that same night, as I drove back home in the dark, I couldn't even concentrate on the music playing in my car. My mind was reeling from what I'd heard that day, and the information flying around in my head wouldn't drop into the familiar cubby holes we all use to categorize things. It was too bizarre. Too awful.

At first, interviewing this big, shy, 17-year-old had been like pulling teeth. Then, little by little, as he opened up and began to trust me, bits and pieces of his story started tumbling out at random. I was stunned, disbelieving, mesmerized and sickened, all at the same time. For a long time, I'd had this image of myself as so worldly, so cool. I thought I'd been just about everywhere, heard just about everything and that not much could still throw me. But, from this gentle, soft-spoken young man, I learned that day--and on so many subsequent days in the years to follow--that there was another whole world out there I'd never even dreamed existed. A world worse than anything I'd ever seen on television; worse than anything I'd ever read about war. And it was peopled by children like Mike and his sisters who thought the life they lived was normal.

That was five years ago, and I've since come to think of the young man who sat across a kitchen table and talked with me that day as a miracle of some sort. Not just because he had survived the ugliness that engulfed him and was still alive to tell about it, but because he wasn't bitter or angry. Instead he was filled with a sweetness and love and acceptance of life I'd never experienced in someone who had been kicked around so badly. Here was a person who had lost his entire childhood, but, hey, it was gone. He'd shrug and smile. "I need to get past that and get on," he'd say.

For me, and evidently for so many of you who wrote to me after reading Mike's story, learning about those first 17 years was an emotionally wrenching, eye-opening view of a totally alien world. Mike might as well have existed on another planet, populated by real monsters and the stuff of nightmares.

For those of you who haven't had a chance to read Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul II yet, "Hero of the Hood" will be shocking.

Trapped in L.A.'s worst slum, this one young boy made a conscious decision at the age of nine that actually did cost him his childhood. He was just a little kid, but he stepped forward at that moment in time to take sole responsibility for his family of seven younger siblings and then successfully raised them--alone--in a world of daily crime, danger, poverty and other horrors. Brutalized first by a drug-dealing father and later by a terrifying, cocaine-pushing stepfather, he survived the treachery and abandonment of a crack-addicted mother and the daily gangland violence and slayings that surrounded them all. For an incredible eight years, the authorities (schools, teachers, social workers, the police) never learned that one young street kid was the only parent this family had and that he was their sole emotional and financial support.

Beware. This is no fairy tale. It is a chronicle of murder, suicide, rage, constant fear, true evil and remarkable courage. Mike Powell was shot eight times before he was fifteen--just trying to keep his family alive and together. His story is a startlingly different picture of America in the 1990s than the one most of us know.

Here's just one short excerpt from the original story that gives a glimpse into what it's like to have crack addicts as parents and to be terrorized continually by a junkie, out of control. And remember, we're talking about a nine-year-old here who has to keep his entire life a secret because he's trying desperately to keep his family from being broken up and having his little brother and six sisters put in separate foster homes. There is no one Mike can turn to for help.

"To make sure no one suspected anything, Mike began cleaning the apartment himself, doing laundry by hand and keeping his sisters fed, diapered and immaculate. He scavenged junk shops for hairbrushes, bottles and clothes, whatever they could afford, and covered up for his mother's absences with an endless litany of excuses. Cheryl and Marcel were soon burning through all the family’s resources to buy "crack"--even money for rent and the children's food. When their financial situation became desperate, Mike quietly quit elementary school at nine to support the family himself. He cleaned yards, unloaded trucks and stocked liquor stores, always working before dawn or late at night so the smaller children wouldn't be alone while awake.

As Cheryl and Marcel's drug binges and absences became longer and more frequent, their brief returns became more violent. Sinking deeper into addiction, Cheryl would simply abandon Marcel when his drugs ran out and hook up with someone who was better supplied. A crazed Marcel would then rampage through the slum apartment, torturing and terrorizing the children for information about where more money was hidden or where he could find their mother.

One night Marcel put Mike's two-year-old sister in a plastic bag and held it closed. Without air, the toddler's eyes were bulging and she was turning blue. "Where's your mother?" the addict screamed. Sobbing, Mike and little five-year-old Raf threw themselves at Marcel again and again, beating on his back with small, ineffectual fists. In desperation, Mike finally sunk his teeth into Marcel's neck, praying the savage tormenter would drop the plastic bag and pick on him instead. It worked. Marcel wheeled and threw Mike through the window, cutting him with shattered glass and breaking his arm."

The story gets worse. A lot worse, as many of you already know...

For the full version of Mike Powell’s inspiring story, see Hero of the ‘Hood in Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul II or Mike’s Gift in Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul Letters.

I promise you’ll never take your life for granted again.

(Mike Powell won the America’s Award in 1998, a national award known as “The Nobel Prize for Goodness.” No one could have deserved it more.)