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Ode: Four little words

John Paul Engel
Ally Karsyn
/

What would you say if I told you four little words that could change your life? 

When I was growing up, my family took care of over a hundred foster children. A hundred children. Think about all of those two 0'clock feedings, caring for those kids when they got sick. Whew, the dirty, smelly diapers! I've changed more diapers than any man in America. If they gave a gold medal for changing dirty diapers, it would be right here, right around my neck.

One day, an infant came home, and this little boy, he started out life with three strikes against him. The first strike was that he was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. The oxygen was cut off, and the doctor said, he would never walk. He would never lead a normal life. The second strike against this infant was that he was born addicted to drugs. Now, I don't know how many of you have ever heard the cry of child who is born addicted to drugs, but it's more than a cry. It's a wail. And it goes on night and day, every single day. And because of all of these problems, this child was deemed "unadoptable" by the state of Iowa. And that meant he wasn't going to a home with a mother and father and brothers and sisters. He was going to spend the rest of his life in an institution. An institution called Glenwood. 

Now fortunately for this baby, he came to our home, instead, awaiting placement in Glenwood. And when the caseworker came to our home to take this child and put him in Glenwood, my mother said, "No! Let him stay here with us. He's fine right here with us."  

As that little boy grew, the problems that he faced became even more evident. As he was learning to walk, he could barely stand. My brothers got cardboard boxes for him, and he pushed those cardboard boxes step by step by step, until he could eventually stand upright. When he went to school, he flunked kindergarten. Who flunks kindergarten? This little guy did. At this point, a lot of people would have given up on him. And I can tell you, a lot of people did.  But not my mom.

Every day she worked with him at the kitchen table. She worked with him on his homework. There were some days when that little guy, he just wanted to give up because it seemed too hard. But whenever he felt that way, my mother would turn to him with a smile, and she'd tell him four little words. Four little words that changed this little boy's life. She said, "You can do it." You can do it. My mother told that little boy, a little boy nobody else believed in, "You can do it." And did it, I did. 

I was never supposed to walk, and I became a competitive long-distance runner. I flunked kindergarten, and I was put in special education classes. Yet, when I graduated high school, I earned a full scholarship to the University of Iowa, and I earned my graduate degree at the University of Chicago. I was never supposed to lead a normal life,  and, believe me, my life has been anything but normal. I have flown on a jet with a billionaire. I've worked side-by-side with some of the smartest people in the world, people with PhDs from Harvard and Oxford and Cambridge. I've been invited to the White House. 

In spite of all of those things, despite all of the smart people that I've had the opportunity to meet in my life, the most important thing I ever learned, I learned right here in Sioux City: I learned those four words. I learned to believe in myself. There's going to come a time in your life, and in your life, when you're going to feel like that little boy, and your going to want to give up because life is too hard. Whenever you feel that way, I want you to remember those four words, those four words that can change your life. Let's say them together: You. Can. Do. It. 

You can do anything you want in life. 

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