This past weekend I was in Florida and got to spend the entire weekend with my 83-year old grandmother, Ma. She doesn’t tell people this often, but she was born in Hungary and forced into Auschwitz at the age of 14. In many ways she was my motivation for starting Pencils of Promise, as I found myself living a life of self-absorption in late 2008 and decided to change my ways by focusing on honoring her through the creation of our first school.
As the weekend started, I asked Ma what it was like to arrive in this country. She recounted stories of escaping across borders to travel by boat for 16 days towards “America.” When I asked what she did when she arrived, she said without hesitation- “I worked in a sweat shop.”
“How much did you make?” I questioned.
She replied, “$1 an hour.”
“And how long did you work there?” I asked.
She nodded her head, as if deciding whether to tell me the answer.
I felt like I was hit by a ton of bricks. My grandmother, this cheery little woman, had worked in a sweat shop for 10 years? How had I not known this? Most people I know leave their job after eighteen months, and yet my grandmother had worked well below minimum wage for 10 years so that her children and grandchildren could have a better way of life.
I’ve heard a lot of great motivational speakers, but my weekend with Ma was the most motivational experience of my year. It instilled a fire in me to make sure I live each day taking advantage of the position she worked so hard to put me in. I hope each of you will take the time to hear the stories of those who worked the hardest so that you could be in your current position too.
Sometimes you find the biggest motivation from the smallest places, including in your grandma’s life.
Ma smiles with the photo from our first school dedication plaque, which is named after her.