The St. Joseph’s Academy 150th Anniversary Speaker Series continued on October 8 with New York Times bestselling author Laura Schroff. An Invisible Thread, Schroff’s story of a successful ad executive in Manhattan and the 11-year-old panhandler she befriended, was read by Academy students as part of their required summer reading.
Schroff and the subject of her book, Maurice Mazyck, first visited SJA in September of 2013. On her return visit, Schroff said she was thrilled to learn that the book was the inspiration behind the Academy’s Sticker Sack program, in which students, faculty and staff provide brown bag lunches to St. Vincent de Paul each Tuesday to help feed the hungry in our community. The program continues today.
Schroff said that in the eight years since her book was published, she has been blessed to speak to students across the country about the power of small acts of kindness and the importance of exploring sacred, invisible thread connections. “What I’ve learned is that it’s crucial to not only educate students’ minds but also their hearts,” she said. “If there’s truth in the saying that we’re all students of life, then I believe we can never stop learning how to be more kind and how to be more compassionate. We can teach others to be kind, but we must lead by example.”
Since the publication of An Invisible Thread in 2011, Schroff has published An Invisible Thread Christmas Story and Angels on Earth: Inspiring Real-Life Stories of Fate, Friendship and the Power of Kindness. “As I stand here today, I know that anything is possible if you’re focused, determined, willing to work hard and, most importantly, always have a dream and faith in yourself,” she said.
Schroff told the story of meeting Maurice 32 years ago, on September 1, 1986. It was Labor Day weekend, and her plans to attend the U.S. Open in New York City were rained out. She went for a walk and happened upon a homeless boy who asked for spare change. She told him no and kept walking. But his words, “I am hungry,” made her stop in the middle of the street and turn around. “His words were ringing in my ears,” she said. “That life-changing instant to turn around and those three simple words changed our lives forever.”
She took Maurice to lunch and discovered how dire his situation was. He hadn’t eaten in two full days. He didn’t own a toothbrush or a bar of soap. He was trapped in a desperate cycle of poverty, drugs and violence. His father, a gang member and drug dealer, was gone. His mother was addicted to drugs. He was living in a 12x12-foot room with up to a dozen people at any given time. “I sat there and thought, ‘How is it possible that a child so young could be on a street corner begging for food? We live in America. How is this happening?’ We realized we lived only two blocks apart, yet we came from two vastly different worlds.”
After lunch, Schroff was compelled to spend more time with the boy, and she asked if he wanted to walk to the park. She knew instantly that here was a “really good kid who just happened to be stuck in a really hard world.” They parted company, but Schroff couldn’t get Maurice out of her mind.
On Thursday evening, she went looking for him and found him on the same street corner on which they had met earlier that week. She took him to dinner and made plans to meet again the following Monday. They would meet every Monday for the next four years. “Together we forged an unplanned path that transformed both our lives forever,” she said.
Her friends, family and colleagues urged her to be careful, Schroff said, “but there was something that drew me to Maurice, and I decided to follow by heart.”
Maurice’s horrible childhood helped Schroff come to grips with her own upbringing in an abusive household with an alcoholic father. She said she was a below-average student because she often went to school tired, having been afraid to fall asleep the night before. “But as a young woman, I discovered I had a secret weapon, and that was my work ethic,” she said. “So I will be forever grateful for both of my parents for giving me a relentless drive and a determination for a better life. So although my childhood was difficult, I do believe that it shaped me to be the person I am today.”
As their Mondays together continued, Schroff taught Maurice the importance of friendship built on trust. He taught her the meaning of going to school with lunch in a brown paper bag: It meant that someone cares. “The bag is only brown paper, but what’s put inside it is something called love,” Schroff said. “Some of the greatest blessings in our lives come in the simplest forms. Most often, these unexpected blessings are when we decide to go beyond ourselves and our own familiar world and reach out to another person.”
Schroff said her relationship Maurice taught her to throw a lifeline to someone in need or to grab hold of one if it’s thrown to you. “Big or small acts of kindness can make a difference in your daily lives, and there is an incredible ripple effect that can happen,” she said.
An Invisible Thread is not the story of a successful woman saving a young African American boy, Schroff said. It is the story of two people saving each other. “Today, Maurice is 44 and has the most wonderful family of his own,” she said. “… What brings me so much joy is how a cycle that lasted generations has been broken. Maurice and his wife Michelle provide the most loving home for their children, free of hunger, drugs and violence. It is amazing that our unlikely friendship could have created so much. My journey has deepened my belief that there are so many angels all around us and how we all have the potential to be someone else’s angel.”
At the conclusion of her talk, Schroff entertained questions from the audience. On display throughout the Academy Student Center were original works of art by Nicole Lane’s students inspired by their reading of An Invisible Thread. Schroff called the pieces breathtaking and said she took a picture of each one.