After listening to Regina Calcaterra convey her background as an abandoned child, I understood why her Etched in Sand memoir sat right next to Maya Angelou on the New York Times Best Seller List. Despite her diminutive frame, Calcaterra is a highly influential woman.
Etched in Sand was voted St. Petersburg College's One Book - One College selection this year and I was privileged to spend time with the author following her presentation at the college's Clearwater, FL campus.
Though separated from the late Maya Angelou by race, geography and circumstance, Regina Calcaterra is emerging as a next generation icon. Like Maya, she has transmuted the isolation and trauma of her early life experience into a platform for raising America's moral conscience.
Imagine five abandoned kids growing up on Long Island as recently as the 1970s. Regina and her siblings were products of five different fathers, all of them absent. Their mother suffered from mental illness and often disappeared, self-medicating on drugs and alcohol. A rare combination of circumstances caused the youngsters to be alone for weeks and months at a time, beginning when the eldest among them was only eight.
The five fledging children conspired at local farms and grocery stores to find food. They crafted stories to cover for their absentee mother in order to prevent social workers from separating them from one another. And they sought shelter in the public library where they had access to heat, running water and books.
Despite their horrific background, the siblings maintained a loving bond that continues to this day. All of them defied statistical expectations and grew into healthy, productive adults.
Now a practicing attorney in New York, Regina Calcaterra stands at the forefront of a heart-centered, socially-driven movement. Her memoir is changing the way we view abandoned children and helping to inspire the idea of "forever families" -- providing permanent, non-legal relationships for youth aging out of foster care.
Did Calcaterra ever imagine how an early life experience would culminate in her current platform as a voice for impoverished and abandoned youth? The woman who endured shame, hunger and physical abuse told me, "It feels surreal."
In grassroots fashion, her Etched in Sand memoir is inspiring individuals, non-profits and faith-based organizations to enlarge their hearts and galvanize their resources to help America's forgotten and abandoned youth.
What distinguishes Regina Calcaterra as an appealing social leader is a strong constitution mixed with grace and gratitude. Regina exudes sensitivity and gentility while conveying her poignant, yet victimless, tale. She admits her childhood has dark spots, but says the story itself cannot be a dark one.
Inspired early on while reading biographies of legendary women who defied previous odds, Calcaterra now embodies similar strength in her own era. "My goal is never to write things that would leave me or my siblings without dignity," she discloses.
The author is careful to conceal the identities of offensive personalities, but generous in sharing names of those who showed her kindness along the way. Her story helps us realize how even the smallest of gestures can infuse strength to the soul of a needy recipient.
She shares about the crossing guard who taught her how to blow her nose. We join Regina for a sleepover at a classmate's home and feel the tenderness of a mother who washed her dirty clothes, provided her a warm shower and gifted her with a toothbrush before she left. Later on, we're inspired by the vocational school teacher who encouraged Regina to apply to college.
Each illuminated figure in Regina Calcaterra's life brings us into intimate relationship with the author's personal experience. We recognize how kind acts can be a beacon of hope, direction and support to a faceless human languishing on the fringes of society.
St. Petersburg College's Bobbi Cullinan helped bring the author to Florida and organize the multi-campus speaking engagement. "Regina's story is now part of the legacy of St. Petersburg College," she told me. The Senior Administrator Services Specialist is looking forward to hearing how SPC students, staff and faculty will find ways to respond to the author's message.
SPC business student Bethany Flick conveyed the impact. Flick previously volunteered at a homeless shelter, but admitted that hearing the author provide a first person narrative immediately changed her perspective. "I never thought about what (these individuals) are going through on a daily basis. All of us here at college never think, what if it's our classmate? We need to reach out to them."
For Regina Calcaterra, childhood might have begun as one etched in sand, but expect her to carry a legacy etched in stone. As author, attorney and spokesperson for abandoned children, she's mining an intimate place in the American culture where connections of the heart are converting into acts of human kindness.