Sam Bracken was a throwaway kid.
His early years were an unimaginable mess, scarred by child abuse, hunger, drug and alcohol use, abandonment, fear and pain. Bracken should be leading a life of crime, in a mental institution or a prison — or dead.
But he’s not. He’s living in Kaysville with his wife Kim, where they are raising three sons and a daughter. He travels the world as general manager of FranklinCovey Media Publishing. He is also the spokesperson for the nonprofit organization My Orange Duffel Bag Foundation, which grew out of a self-published memoir he co-authored in 2010 with Georgia journalist Echo Garrett.
The colorfully illustrated book, “My Orange Duffel Bag,” sold about 20,000 copies before it was picked up in 2012 by Crown Archetype, a subsidiary of Random House.
In the book, Bracken details his nightmarish childhood and the “Journey to Radical Change” (the book’s subtitle) that led him out of the darkness. The book offers a road map for those who want to rise above their circumstances, dump their baggage and become victorious in their lives.
“Do whatever it takes to protect your mind and your heart from negativity. Fill yourself up with light every day,” a passage reads.
Bracken’s story is interwoven with quotations from notable figures and sources, including Gandhi, George Bernard Shaw and the Bible. The book has won design awards and in 2011 was named the Outstanding Book of the Year in the Young Adult/Children’s category by the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
Bracken’s story begins on a chilling note. “BORN the product of a rape UNWANTED,” the text reads over a picture of his baby photo.
Bracken grew up in the 1970s on the fringes of Las Vegas, around motorcycle gang members and mobsters. His childhood was filled with unimaginable horrors, including being beaten, starved, set on fire, molested and exposed to drugs and alcohol, according to the book. Bracken’s mother abandoned him at 15 when she joined a motorcycle gang and he was left to fend for himself.
Describing himself as “dope-smoking little hippie kid,” Bracken would surely have gone down the wrong road without the intervention of some remarkable people who helped correct the course of his life.
“Teachers, administrators and people who cared changed the trajectory of my life,” Bracken said during an interview with the Standard-Examiner.
Those individuals will forever hold a revered place in his heart and home, he said, getting a little choked up. They gave him something he’d never before had in his life: hope.
With that hope, he stayed in school, earned a 3.9 grade-point average, joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, served a church mission, won a college scholarship, packed everything he owned into an orange duffel bag and attended Georgia Institute of Technology, where he played football for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.
He graduated with honors and went on to write the book he hopes helps other people facing similar situations. He also hopes to encourage others to reach out to troubled, homeless teens and be like those “angels” who guided him.
“The way that I can repay them is to create a way to help others,” Bracken said. “Be that one to help just one kid. Everyone knows one kid who needs encouragement, help and support.”
Paying it forward
Bracken is the speaker on Wednesday at a Davis Reads benefit sponsored by the Davis School District at Viewmont High School in Bountiful. The event is free, but donations are being encouraged to help fund a Teen Center for Youth in Davis County, which currently does not have a facility for at-risk children, according to Mary Ann Nielson, Davis School District’s homeless services director.
With more than 1,000 youth in Davis County who are considered homeless, Nielson hopes the event will help raise awareness of the need for such a facility. Currently, there are programs to help families with housing, but homeless teens have few resources.
Teens are driven into homelessness, Nielson said, by such factors as abominable parenting, physical and sexual abuse, poverty, drug and alcohol use, teen rebellion or mental health issues.
No matter the reason, Bracken and Nielson both pointed out that society is not doing itself any favors by abandoning these children. If left to their own devices, these “throwaway kids” often drop out of school, can’t get jobs and gravitate toward lives of crime, including prostitution, robbery and drug trafficking.
That road then leads them to prison and/or mental institutions, where the cost to society is much higher than it would have been had these at-risk youth been helped out along the way.
A teen outreach center in Davis County would provide a place where these homeless teens could find the support they need to stay in school, learn how to cope with mental and emotional problems, and network with people who can help them out of their desperate situations, Nielson said.
Literacy is also key to lifting these troubled teens to a better life, Bracken and Nielson noted. They hope the Davis Reads event also serves as a vehicle to promote the importance of literacy.
Davis Reads chairwoman Belinda Kuck said she is excited to have Bracken share his inspirational story with students, teachers and community members.
“You cannot help but be inspired with his story of triumph,” Kuck said in a press release. “We hope to fill the auditorium with students, families and others who will benefit from his words of hope.”
As any parent knows, raising a teenager is no easy task. Helping out a homeless teen is and even greater challenge.
“Helping this population is messy, difficult and hard,” Bracken said.
The teens often have enormous emotional challenges and substance abuse issues. They need role models who have the patience, understanding, courage and love that it takes to turn their lives around.
It can be a discouraging process — and sometimes it may seem easier to throw up your hands and throw away the child. But that’s not the road map Bracken is following.
“Kids should not have to go through these unspeakable, unbearable trials,” Bracken said. “The price of a human soul is worth saving.”
For more information, visit www.myorangeduffelbag.com.
WHO: Sam Bracken, author of ‘My Orange Duffel Bag’
WHAT: Davis Reads
WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 13
WHERE: Viewmont High School, 120 W. 1000 North, Bountiful
ADMISSION: Free, but seating is limited. Donations will be accepted to help fund a Teen Center for Youth.
HOMELESSNESS IN DAVIS SCHOOL DISTRICT
• 1,023 homeless students in grades K-12
• 604 homeless elementary students
• 250 homeless junior high students
• 169 homeless high school students
• 842 homeless families
• Approximately 1.6 million (one in 45 children) are homeless in a year
• 42 percent of homeless children are age 6 and younger
• Of homeless elementary students, only 21.5 percent are proficient in math and 24.4 percent in reading
• Of homeless high school students, 11.4 percent are proficient in math and 14.6 percent in reading
Sources: Davis School District and National Center on Family Homelessness