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Sam Bracken says growing up in his family was like belonging to a whacked-out version of the Brady Bunch that was starring in an episode of the reality TV show "Cops."
And that's putting it kindly.
Conceived when his mother was raped, Bracken's early life involved every sort of abuse imaginable: being briefly abandoned, lit on fire, used as a human dart board, beaten by a stepfather, on drugs and alcohol by age 9, kicked out of his Las Vegas home at age 15 by his mom, who had taken up with the Hessians motorcycle gang and offered the parting message, "I'm done."
"The people who were supposed to care for me simply didn't," Bracken said Monday at the ninth annual Youth Summit at Fort Douglas for kids who are in foster care.
But it's what he said next that Bracken hoped would sink in for the 200 youth ages 12 to 22 from throughout Utah participating in the two-day event.
"You can't always determine where you start in this world," he said, "but we can determine how we end."
That message is at the center of Bracken's campaign to help youth who are homeless or aging out of foster care through his Orange Duffel Bag Foundation named after the fluorescent bag that held his belongings when Bracken was forced from home. The foundation, endorsed by Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, has launched a drive to raise $1 million to provide the 200 or so youth who age out of state care each year with training, life coaching and mentoring in hope of helping them make a successful transition to adulthood.
Getting kicked out of his home may have been the third-best thing that ever happened to Bracken. The first was finding an escape from his family problems in running, which led him to excel at track and later at football, and kept him on course to not follow his family's example. He moved in with a friend's family, where he "learned for the first time what normal was," and graduated with honors from high school.
The second-best thing that happened to Bracken was getting a full-ride football scholarship from Ken Blair at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Shoulder injuries nearly ended Bracken's football career after his first year, but he prevailed on the field and in the classroom eventually completing law school powered by a can-do, never-give-up way of thinking that he now wants to pass along to youth.
Bad, unfortunate and disappointing experiences "can be leveraged for good," said Bracken, who today is general manager for new media and marketing at FranklinCovey and lives in Kaysville with his wife, Kim, and their four children.
Bracken's philosophy is spelled out in a graphic memoir he published in 2010, with help from foundation co-founder Echo Garrett, called, "My Orange Duffel Bag: A Journey to Radical Change." His "7 Rules for the Road" principles are desire, awareness, meaning, choice, love, change and gratitude concepts introduced in workshops at the event. Contact with adult mentors is key, said Garrett.
"We find that the more connections the kids have,the better their lives are," she said.
Among those for whom Bracken's life story sounded familiar: Deszy, 17, who beginning at age 12 lived in four different foster homes before being reunited with her grandmother and aunt.
Bracken's program "helps the youth know their life isn't all negative and there is a way to be happy," said Deszy, who said she hopes to be a nurse someday and has a closet full of scrub outfits that help her stay focused on that goal.
"I just need the support and I need people who are going to help me because they want to, not because they have to," she said.
How to help
I Utahn Sam Bracken has translated his hard-luck experiences as a child into a nonprofit called The Orange Duffel Bag Foundation, which has launched programs in Utah and Georgia. Bracken hopes to raise $1 million to fund its training, coaching and advocacy outreach to youth who are homeless or aging out of state care. To donate, text "orange" and a donation amount to 27138. To learn more, visit orangeduffelbagfoundation.org.