PHOTO BY GERVASIO SANCHEZ
Most people who know me, know that I was born and raised
in Panama until the age of 15.
They also know that I lived there all through the dictatorship
of General Manuel Noriega and that I have many crazy stories from
that period in my life that sound like they came right out of a movie.
But this is not one of those stories.
This is a story I’ve only told a very small handful of
people in my life.
And now I’m telling it to you…
When I was 12 or 13 and living in Panama with my family,
my mother came home from work one day with an incredible
She had been at a stoplight heading home from her teaching job
on the American base, when she saw a child, with raggedy shorts,
no shoes and no shirt on, sitting on the corner of the intersection,
He was one of the typical kids you see day in and day out, begging for
money on the busy city streets of Panama.
It was not a new sight for my mother to see a child begging for
money on the street. But this day, as she saw that child crying there on
the curb at the intersection, instead of putting money in his cup as the
light turned from red to green, she was moved to do something
She pulled her car over to that curb and called the boy over
to her window.
She asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jon-Jon”, he replied.
“Why are you crying?”, she asked..
He said, “I didn’t make enough money today to bring back home
to my family and now we won’t have anything to eat.”
“Do you live with your parents?”, my mother asked.
“No, my parents are dead. I live with my sister, her baby
and my two brothers.”
“What happened to your parents?”, my mother inquired.
“My mother sold drugs and someone stabbed her to death.
We all have different fathers, but they’re all missing or dead.”
Jon-Jon’s tears streamed down his dust covered face as he spoke.
My mother looked into his eyes and made a decision.
“Wait here and I will be back in one hour.
But don’t move from this spot, I promise it will be worth your while”.
My mother, instead of going home, went to the grocery store and
bought 4 bags full of groceries for Jon-Jon. On her way back, she had no
idea if he was still going to be there when she pulled back up to that
intersection, but as she got closer, there he was in the distance, exactly
where she had left him, sitting under the hot sun.
“Get in the car with me”, my mother said.
Jon-Jon looked a little bit scared. My mother was scared
Both were worried the other might harm them.
But for some reason, that day, they both decided to trust each
When Jon-Jon walked around the car, opened the passenger side
door and sat down in the car, he saw the groceries in the back seat and
his eyes grew wide and full of light.
A huge grin spread across his face.
“Yes, I bought you and your family groceries, now show me how to
get to your house so I can drop you off”, my mother stated.
My mother drove Jon-Jon in her nice car into the ghetto of all
ghettos in Panama.
When she arrived to the area that was close to his house, she paid
someone to watch her car for her, so that it wouldn’t be dismantled by
the time she got back to it.
She then got out of the car with her heels on, her nice purse,
groceries in hand and followed Jon-Jon through the muddy paths of
the ghetto until she arrived at his house.
It was a teeny, tiny, one-room dirt floor shack with a roof
made of scraps of tin and walls of rotting wood and cardboard.
In one corner was a make-shift stove and in the other was a dirty
mattress. Inside, there was a young girl, about 19, with a baby and 7
months pregnant (Jon-Jon’s sister) and a boy, older than Jon-Jon, named
They all, along with another brother who was in his
mid-twenties and not present, lived in this tiny room.
In absolute squalor.
My mother told me she would never forget the horror and
sadness she felt when she saw Jon-Jon’s living situation.
As she conversed with them while distributing the groceries, she
could sense how smart both Jon-Jon and his brother Jimmy were, but
they had not gone to school in years because they were too
busy begging and stealing to make ends meet.
My mother asked Jon-Jon, “how would you like to go school?” and he
responded that it was something that he always wished he could do.
Jimmy chimed in, agreeing.
My mother made another decision.
She looked into Jimmy and Jon-Jon’s eyes and said, “I have a
proposition for both you, it’s up to you if you want to accept it”.
“I will continue to bring you groceries every week and I will buy you
shoes and clothes whenever you need them, but only if you promise that
you and your brother Jimmy are going to enroll in school tomorrow and
get at least a C+ average every semester. You must go every day to
school and cannot skip any classes. If you need help with studying, I will
Jon-Jon’s eyes teared up and he said “Yes, Mrs. Fabrega, Yes!”
Jimmy, who was the more introverted one, looked overwhelmed by
my mother’s gesture, but nodded his head in agreement.
They both looked relieved and happy.
My mother took them a few days later to a store, to buy each of them
a pair of good, sturdy shoes, underwear, socks, t-shirts and their school
uniforms. She bought all of their books and school supplies.
My mother told me the entire time they were shopping, their eyes
were so wide — they had never had this kind of experience
From then on, Jimmy and Jon-Jon were essentially adopted by my family.
Even though my mom asked them several times, they did not want to
come live with us, because they wanted to stay with their remaining family.
But for two years, my parents continued to buy them groceries every
week, shoes and clothes and they stayed in school, making incredible
I still marvel at how they were able to do this, when they
were already tight with money as it was, trying to feed and raise three
biological children as well.
Jimmy and Jon-Jon were at many of our birthday parties, spent a few
holidays with us, came over on some weekends. They were both very shy
and quiet when they came and I could tell they felt weird sometimes
being around us. It was a totally different life that we were living and I
remember being young, yet feeling so guilty and uncomfortable over the
fact that I had a bed with a frilly white bedspread to call my own, while
they slept on a dirty mattress in one room.
Still I did everything I could to help them feel like they were my
I remember once, at a birthday party, I got into a fight with a
girl friend of mine, defending them because she was
uncomfortable that they were there and was being rude to them.
My mother even tutored them when they had trouble on certain
subjects and they both got good grades. Within a few months, both of
them had caught up with the years of school they had missed and the
teachers told my mom that both Jimmy and Jon Jon were very bright.
But then a few incidents showed a change in the tide.
First, my mother found out, from one of the teachers, that Jimmy and
Jon-Jon had both sold their shoes for money and were going to
school barefoot. When she asked them why they did that, why didn’t they
come to her and let her know they needed something, instead of selling
their shoes…they never gave her a straight answer.
Then Jimmy began to get in trouble.
He started missing school.
Finally he was caught stealing from a store in the middle of
the night with a gang of guys he hung around with and he went to
My father went to bail him out and told him, with tough love, that the
next time he went to jail, he was not going to bail him out and instead he
would stay there and take responsibility for his actions.
Their grades began to slip at school.
My mom stayed in constant touch with their teachers to check on
their grades, to offer help of tutoring, but their calls went
During that time my father got a new job and we moved from
Panama to Florida. Jimmy and Jon-Jon did not want to come, and we
understood—they did not want to leave the rest of their family behind.
My parents continued to send money for groceries, school supplies
and any other needs every month, all the way from the United States. All
they had to do in exchange was stay in school and pass their classes.
My grandmother kept in touch with them, to offer us reports as to
how they were doing. She said they would go missing for months and
months, while my grandmother tried to get them the food and supplies
that my parents sent every month. But they would never show up to
claim it. They’d suddenly pop up and ask for money, then disappear
We worried about them all the time.
My mother and father flew back down to Panama several times just
to have talks with them to try and help, to try to get them back on track,
so they didn’t get sucked up into the gangs and into the
lifestyle they had told my mother they wanted to get out of. We always
thought about them and wanted to make sure they were okay.
Jimmy went to jail again, this time for a more serious offense.
He was caught with a gun and shot someone.
He is still there to this day.
My dad has been to visit him a few times.
Then we found out that Jon-Jon had died.
Shortly after we had left, he had become a male prostitute and
He died of AIDS, just like his oldest brother.
I know this story is not a happy ending.
In fact, I still cry thinking about it.
It’s one of those events in life where there is just a permanent
sadness, where you’re always asking yourself…
But I tell this story, because it’s one of the main things
I meditate on in life.
I always wonder, what could have been done to make sure
these kids’ lives did not turn out this way?
It feels like we did everything we could within our power and
knowledge at the time.
We did everything we could to show them that they could choose
differently. That they could be whoever they wanted to be.
That they did not have to end up where they didn’t want to end up.
We sat down with them many times to help them stay positive
and build something for themselves.
And in the work that I do today, I see this in people too.
Some people take the tools and run with them. Others don’t.
Sometimes when I tell this story to people, the answer I get is
“well, sometimes when human beings grow up in surroundings
like that, it’s all they know and they can’t ever get out of it,
try as they might”.
But honestly, I don’t want to think that way.
I want to believe that if a human being really wants to change
his/her life, they can do it, if only we can offer them the proper
tools and support.
It’s why I have the business that I have today, helping people get past
the stuff that holds them back from becoming powerful
leaders and making an impact in the world with their calling.
Here’s what I do know:
I know that we have tons of conditioning to get past.
I know that limiting beliefs can be purpose-killers.
I know that some human beings don’t even know/can’t even see that
anything else could be possible because they only know what they’ve
seen their whole lives.
But if you’ve ever felt that way, there is hope.
What about the people who pushed past all that and still chose
Why is it that 2 totally different people can have the exact same
experience and one can overcome it and use it as fuel to drive them
forward and another can fold in upon themselves and give up
What is that “spark” that drives a human being to push forward,
I know that having your basic human needs met is a huge part of
I also know that having support is a big part of it as
People we admire, like MLK, Mandela, Oprah and Mother Theresa
have all had to overcome incredible obstacles to get to where they
Poverty, sexual abuse, torture, false imprisonment.
Yet I’ve seen so many people, who would rather stay slightly
miserable in their current paradigm, than do the hard work
of moving forward.
I think this question drives so much of my work with people
Maybe I’m too much of an optimist, but I want to believe that
there is no such thing as people who are “born with it” and
people who are simply, not.
I don’t believe that’s the only conclusion we can draw.
I don’t believe what your mind tells you sometimes when you feel
defeated, that you’re “doomed” and you might as well give up.
What if Mandela had thought this way?
What if Mother Theresa had let a few obstacles get in her way?
Apartheid would still be around. All the people Mother Theresa
helped would have suffered and died on the streets of Calcutta.
That’s the cost of you letting fear, anxiety and self-doubt hold you
back from stepping into the leadership role you know you are here to
The world needs you, my love.
Part of me dares to dream that by getting over our fears and daring
to step out there and lead by example, that cultural and societal
paradigms would begin to shift.
What if just by daring to lead by example, we could provide the
mindset tools, abundance and support that every human being needs to
get ahead and have that inner spark lit in
succeed…whatever success feels and looks like to them.
(this includes you, my dear friend)
I want to believe that maybe there is some way Jimmy and Jon-Jon
wouldn’t have ended up dead and in jail.
Is there a way to light that spark in a person, when it has
been turned off?
How can we get a person to want to fight, instead of giving
I don’t know the FULL answer to this question yet.
Though in my work with people just like you over the years, I have
learned a lot of the answers.
I suspect this will be a lifelong quest.
But I do know that I’ve seen clients go from totally unmotivated and
depressed to leading a major NPO and speaking at peace
conferences around the world.
I’ve seen clients go from afraid to be out in public with their message,
to redefining health on TV, radio and in paid public appearances.
So, my question to you today is this:
How much pain are you willing to tolerate until you finally
ask for/get the help you need to move ahead?
Because I think that getting real about how much it’s costing, not just
you, but the world for you not to be doing what you’re meant
to do, is really important.
Perhaps if we made it a priority to own our power a little more
and lead by example, we could create a ripple effect that
reaches all the way to the Jimmy and Jon-Jon’s of this world and show
them that yes, it IS possible to overcome your circumstances.
I think that we all need more people around us who are fearlessly
stepping into their leadership, so that we can be inspired to do the
We all have incredible value to add, no matter who we are.
The world needs you in your power.
That’s my invitation to you.
So I’d love to know what you have done in the past to get yourself
motivated, so that the fear of moving forward is less than the pain
of not moving forward?
What lights your spark?
In sharing our answers here collectively, I think we can find a way
to move everyone forward together, not just a select few.
I’d love to hear your thoughts below…