they are worthy of nothing better,” she said. “So a child who is hurt by her mother typically is feeling unlovable, unworthy and that often, often can quickly move into feeling hopeless.”
Volunteers do “something more” in addition to giving information to judges, “we show up for these children, we get to know them really well, we listen to them and we give a voice to their needs, and somewhere in that process is where this magic happens.”
CASA of the Mid-Shore’s first vice president, Stephanie Nagel, opened the luncheon Friday by saying childhood is “a time of imagination and wishes and dreams.”
“Wishes are magical things, whether they’re in children or adults. There are threads that run through all of childhood that you can remember and every child can relate to. The fortunate ones wish for treats and toys and laughter, and this morning my students wished for snow,” Nagel said. “The unfortunate ones wish for these things but so much more. They wish for safety and security. They wish for opportunity, acknowledgement, encouragement.
“In order for them to keep wishing for these things, even when life keeps beating them down, telling them no, they need hope,” she said. “Hope is more than a wish. Hope is not pretending that troubles don’t exist; it is the conviction that they won’t last forever, that hurts will be healed and difficulties overcome, that we will be led out of darkness and into the sunshine. CASA is about bringing hope to children whose wishes would otherwise go in vain. It is the voices that say you are worthy, you are worth the effort.”
The main speaker for the event was Johnny O’Brien, a longtime Eastern Shore resident whose personal story “validates our core mission at CASA that it is absolutely possible to make a difference in the lives of vulnerable children,” Davenport said.
O’Brien focused his story on the importance of advocacy for children, “because there’s magic in advocacy when it meets adversity and creates the hope.”
He was 3 years old when he and his 5-year-old brother Frankie were sent to the Hershey Industrial School for Orphan Boys (now called Milton Hershey School), after being told their parents died in a tragic car accident.
The school became O’Brien’s home for the rest of his childhood, but not his brother’s. At the school, the older teens harshly bullied the younger kids, and Frankie did not fare well there.
Frankie was “beginning to pull back” and “beginning to hide in the evenings” and at school during lunch. O’Brien tried to stand up for him because he knew his brother wouldn’t fight back, but his behavior started to get worse, “and he was really shutting down.”
One day, O’Brien came home from school and Frankie wasn’t there. He was sent to the state asylum, without the opportunity to give his brother a last goodbye.
“The only reason I remained and Frankie didn’t was that I had a terrific teacher who took me under his wing. As I got into sports a little bit later I had coaches who were my advocates, who gave me hope,” O’Brien said. “After I lost Frankie, I decided to double-down on everything that I did. I wanted to practice harder for sports. I wanted to study longer for my academics. I wanted to not only join but become the leader of every activity and every sport.”
“From the guilt that I had about not doing more for Frankie, and the grief that came from losing him, I became obsessed (with being the best), in a way, but most importantly what happened was that I had a high school coach and two high school teachers who said Johnny, you have so much potential, you have so much inside you to give, and no one ever told Frankie that,” O’Brien said. “And they nurtured me and they gave me hope and they coached me.”
O’Brien wound up attending Princeton University, but before he left the Hershey School, he was told his father was alive and serving a life sentence in prison for murdering his mother.
But people throughout his college education continued to advocate for him and encourage him, and after graduation and gathering some work experience, he later started a company called Renaissance Leadership Company, teaching executives of Fortune 500 companies how to be better leaders to their employees.
O’Brien also eventually led a rebellion with other alumni against the Milton Hershey School, after the president there started taking the school off its mission and turning it into more of a middle-class prep school, while it was originally only for the neediest and most vulnerable kids. The alumni won the rebellion, the board and president were taken out, and O’Brien was named president of the Milton Hershey School, working to turn it into a “kinder, more gentle” place for the children.
“Adversity isn’t bad. In fact, the lack of adversity is bad. Adversity is actually a good thing when it’s coupled with advocacy,” O’Brien said. “When you combine being abandoned, being unwanted, being unloved with advocacy and caring and coaching and mentoring, something magical happens and it becomes one of the greatest advantages that a young person can have in their lives.”