“It’s like playing the lottery. The saying, ‘You can’t win if you don’t play’ is a worn cliché that continues to be true. Even though the odds for your winning the lottery are minuscule at best, one fact prevails: Every single winning lottery ticket has come as the result of a proactive measure taken. Whether it’s a group’s weekly purchase or simply an extra buck spent on a single ticket at your local convenience store, that action was rewarded with a winning ticket. You have to be prepared to take advantage of luck when it presents itself to you. It may take major effort on your part, or it may be as simple as buying one lottery ticket, but when you nurture an optimistic and hopeful heart, you can maximize that luck and often create your own.”
SPRING 2010: A PACT BETWEEN CO-WORKERS
Zahra Vasseghi (“Zah-ra Vuh-seggee”) always looks for the best in people. “Whatever I see, I see the positive in it. I look for it.“ For a woman who suffered a severely life-changing stroke of bad luck 33 years ago this month, it’s a remarkable outlook. To meet her and spend time with her, you’d have no idea of the injustice she endured as a young woman in labor, let down at the moment when a pregnant woman’s most vulnerable, her family’s life forever changed by a negligent doctor.
Because that was a long time ago and Zahra, now 55, has since found peace from those life-altering events. It’s just her nature to look at the bright side of things. So one day last spring, when her friend and co-worker proclaimed–yet again–as she had been for the previous few months, “I’m really lucky!” Zahra spoke up.
Perhaps it was because of how many times she’d heard her 65 year-old husband, Behzad (nicknamed "Ben”), sing the same tune, “We are so lucky.”
He’d say it during breakfast, lunch and dinner. He’d say it while driving and sitting on the couch. He said it back when his young kids were sleeping on the floor of the family’s restaurant while he and Zahra closed up for the night. Sometimes he said it just walking around the house…
“We are so lucky to be in America.”
Perhaps it was because of something she read in the book her son, Sourena (“Su-renna”), wrote…
LESSON 8: TAKE ADVANTAGE OF LUCK
“I’m really lucky,” her co-worker said again to no one in particular.
Zahra looked up in the Los Angeles office of the telecommunications company she’d been working in for 15 years, “Then you should play the lottery.”
And her co-worker smiled and said, “OK. From now on, you give me $5 a week. I’ll buy the tickets and when we win, we’ll split it.”
Not if we win. When we win.
Zahra diligently went back to work, as she had since 1979 when she and Ben left everything they knew in Iran and moved to the United States in search of treatment for their baby son, Sourena. Named after a Persian Knight who defeated one of the most powerful leaders of the Roman Empire, Sourena’s been engaged in battle since the morning of his birth…
At 4:00am on October 21, 1977 in Kerman, Iran, Zahra went into labor. She got out of bed, quickly showered and was driven by Ben to the clinic. They arrived at 5:00am and alerted her doctor. Annoyed at being awakened so early, especially on a Friday, the day of rest in Iran, the doctor hastily examined her. He noted that Zahra had a long way to go and complained that first-time mothers were too soft. He then had the audacity to return to bed instructing the nurses to let him sleep until it was absolutely necessary. Zahra made little commotion about her labor pains but continued to tell the nurses she needed help, to no avail.
The doctor finally returned around 9:00am and after re-examining Zahra, began to panic. There was no time to administer anesthesia so he proceeded to operate without it. Around 9:10am, Sourena was born…but he wasn’t breathing. The doctor and nurses whisked him away and administered oxygen in a desperate attempt to revive him. For nearly ten minutes after the delivery, Sourena was without oxygen until, miraculously, the tiny baby started to breathe.
But unbeknownst to anyone in the room, his fate had already been decided.
Nearly 33 years later, sitting in her office in Los Angeles, Zahra didn’t give much thought to fate. And she certainly didn’t give another thought to the lottery. Focusing on her work helped her ignore the lurking stress. Her and Ben’s home equity line of credit was almost depleted from lending money to their wheelchair-bound son, Sourena, to try to establish his career after hundreds of attempts at getting a job had come up dry. Undaunted, Sourena had shifted his focus towards being an entrepreneur. He was determined to succeed as an author and motivational speaker in spite of his severe Cerebral Palsy that robbed him of muscle control, the ability to speak clearly, and confined him to a life of needing assistance with everything from bathing and using the restroom to getting dressed and eating. Despite the odds, he’d managed to kickstart his career as a writer and motivational speaker but had yet to breakthrough to the point where he was earning a steady income.
Ben had sold his last restaurant in 2001 after Sourena graduated from the University of Southern California (USC) so that he could be free to take care of Sourena and Zahra was supporting all three of them. Thankfully, Zahra didn’t have to worry about her 30 year-old daughter and best friend, Sanaz (“Sa-nahz”) who had bought her own condo and was working as a high school guidance counselor. Times weren’t easy, but they could’ve been worse. And as Zahra said, she always focused on the good things in her life which at the moment included cheering for her beloved Lakers as they finished up the regular season and pursued repeating as NBA Champions.
DECEMBER 2000: “I HAVE AN AMAZING STORY FOR YOU”
I met Sourena nearly 10 years ago, in December 2000, when my close friend, Jim Ellis, then a professor at University of Southern California, now Dean of the USC Marshall School of Business, introduced us during a meeting on campus. Jim had known me my entire life–he and my Dad were high school friends and my parents set up Jim and his wife, Gail. Jim and Sourena had met a few months earlier at the start of the semester on the first day of Jim’s Advertising & Promotion class. Jim prefaced the meeting with Sourena by calling me and saying simply, “I have an amazing story for you.” He described Sourena, much the same way he’d praise him in the foreword of his book years later…
“The word ‘inspirational’ always comes to mind when around Sourena for any period of time. Yes, he has a vision for his life, and he has a strong work ethic – his mind is running all the time. He is a total inspiration to everyone with whom he comes into contact as he has the ability to connect the dots of life, when he has not been able to experience it all.”
- James G. Ellis
Love Your Life and It Will Love You Back, Foreword (2007)
Sourena would later describe Jim in equally glowing terms, “Forget about all the good things about USC. Forget about all of my friends, my wonderful assistants, my good times. Without all of these, it still would have been worth going to USC just to meet Jim Ellis.”
Prior to our meeting, Jim gave me an essay Sourena had written a couple years earlier about the challenges he’d faced in his life and how, against the odds, he’d become a student at USC. I had the same reaction as Jim.
What an amazing story.
Coincidentally, I happened to be familiar and comfortable being around someone with Cerebral Palsy. Growing up in Evanston, Illinois, I’d known three family friends with CP–Barton Cutter, Corbett Ryan and Vail Sturgis. I could see past the involuntary muscle movements, hear through most of the speech impediment and knew not to underestimate the power of Sourena’s mind trapped inside his body. From his essay, I knew he was extremely intelligent, passionate and, above all, patient.
Conversation required an inordinate amount of focus for Sourena. He had to fight against his jerking head while often repeating the same word or sentence multiple times. Even though I could understand a lot of what he was saying, sometimes it still took him several minutes to make a simple point. Compounding the challenge of understanding him, Sourena's remarkable wit and vocabulary frequently caught me off-guard with unexpected jokes and multisyllabic words. I spent the meeting listening and translating for Jim…
Sourena wanted to write an autobiography. He spoke of his love for his parents and sister and of how many people had helped him. He talked about how he’d been able to find fellow USC students to be his roommates and feed, bathe and clothe him. How he organized a team of tutors to help him with his schoolwork. He was getting ready to graduate and two things were weighing on him. He wanted to find a job. And he wanted to find someone to share his life with. He knew at first glance, most people would write him off so he figured if he wrote a book and people had the chance to see how strong his mind was, how genuine his soul was…that he might find what he was looking for.
I was moved by his intentions and interested in helping but unsure how to initially proceed so we agreed to keep in touch and if I couldn’t help, I’d try and find him a collaborator.
Six months later, Sourena hot-wheeled across a stage at USC’s graduation to a standing ovation 900-strong. He’d earned a 3.3 GPA as a business major with an emphasis on marketing and had inspired almost everyone he’d come in contact with during his time on campus. But while his peers headed off to start their careers, Sourena went back to his family’s home in Agoura Hills and tried unsuccessfully to find someone to hire him.
We reconnected shortly after graduation in the summer of 2001 at his Dad’s restaurant in West LA. Sourena was ready to start his book. His determination and enthusiasm were contagious. I decided life had brought us together for a reason and even if I couldn’t see exactly where the project would go, we were meant to work together. I suggested we meet once a week. He’d talk, I’d type.
AND WE’D START BACK AT THE BEGINNING
Within a few months of his birth in 1977, Ben & Zahra noticed Sourena wasn’t progressing like most infants. At six months, he still couldn’t hold up his head. They took him to a physician who told them not to worry, brushing it off as Sourena progressing slower than average. Months passed and Sourena still hadn’t accomplished what other kids his age had. Instead of crawling on hands and knees, he laid on his back and performed a unique swimming crawl by kicking one foot and pushing with one arm…the first of many instances demonstrating even when he couldn’t do what his peers could, Sourena was determined to keep up.
Ben & Zahra suspected something was wrong, yet had little trust for the doctors in Kerman. They traveled to Tehran, the capital of Iran, for a second opinion from a doctor who had been educated in the United States. He recommended they take Sourena to America or Europe to be re-examined. Ben had attended college at Cal-Poly in Pomona, California a few years earlier and his young bride, Zahra, then 19 years-old, had joined him for his final year so they were both familiar with the American way of life. Ben had received job offers in Texas and Colorado after graduating Cal-Poly but they returned to Iran to be close to family and Ben had taken a job at a university teaching mechanical engineering. With the Islamic Revolution gaining momentum, Ben & Zahra decided to sell everything and permanently return to the U.S.
Ben’s sister, Mitra, worked for an American company in Iran and arranged for two visas from the American Embassy. In June of 1979, the 24 year-old Zahra left Iran with tiny Sourena who was not yet two years old and traveled to stay with family in Missouri while Ben, unable to obtain a visa, remained in Iran hoping to soon follow.
As the Iranian Revolution worsened and Ben struggled to obtain a visa, he began to worry when he’d be reunited with his wife and son. The American Consulate announced they wouldn’t be granting any more visas for a month and Ben knew he had to act. He sold what he could and left everything else behind, including his land. With barely $4,000 to his name he headed for Greece. There, the American Embassy saw only two people per week. Ben went to the Embassy with another Iranian, a man with millions of dollars in American banks and factories throughout Iran, whose documents were perfect. The man went first and not only didn’t get a visa–he got a rejection stamp on his passport forbidding him from obtaining a visa in any other country. Ben thought about what he had–a simple letter stating his son needed medical attention. He couldn’t risk being banned. So he turned around and walked out of the Embassy…left Greece and headed for Paris. As soon as he arrived in the Paris airport, Ben called the American Embassy. It was late on a Friday afternoon and the Embassy was only open until 6:00pm. Ben hung up and rushed over, barely making it before closing. He got his visa.
On November 3, 1979, Ben arrived in the United States. The very next day, November 4, 1979, the American Embassy in Iran was seized and the Iranian hostage crisis began. President Jimmy Carter responded by ordering every American Embassy in the world to deny visas for all Iranians attempting to travel to the United States.
Ben had made it to America with less than twenty-four hours to spare!
He reunited with his wife and son in St. Louis, embracing Zahra & Sourena and saying for the first time what would become his motto…
“We are so lucky to be in America.”
They traveled west to Southern California and stayed in a tiny apartment with relatives until they were able to get an appointment at UCLA Medical Center. Ben was sure the doctors would have an answer that would help his son but the heartbreaking conclusion was that Sourena’s brain was damaged during birth and he was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy. He would never be able to walk or have a normal life. And the most gut-wrenching part was that if Zahra’s doctor had given her the proper medical attention, Sourena would have most likely been born completely healthy.
Ben was devastated. He’d left everything behind and come to America hoping for a miracle. By the time he’d paid the medical bills, he and Zahra were down to their last $10. Most people weren’t interested in hiring Iranians due to the hostage crisis so Ben went from teaching mechanical engineering to hustling for odd jobs in restaurants while Zahra got a job at McDonald’s. Her first day, Zahra was shocked when told to go do the dishes. Back in Iran, it wasn’t the type of work a woman would leave the home to do. But she did them without complaint. “I actually learned a lot at McDonald’s,” Zahra explained, “You have to pay attention. I learned to seriously multitask there.”
Faced with bleak employment opportunities and the realization that Sourena’s condition was permanent, Ben & Zahra decided to return to Iran. But the American hostage situation in Iran had sparked a terrible relationship between the two countries and it was dangerous for anyone to try and return to Iran. Then they discovered the happy news that Zahra was pregnant again. Unwilling to have their second child in Iran, they decided to stay. Sourena’s sister, Sanaz, was born in 1980 and shortly after, The Vasseghis settled in Agoura Hills, a suburb of Los Angeles.
A FAMILY GROWS TOGETHER
Ben & Zahra worked tirelessly to provide for their children. Ben delivered pizzas and waited tables at Denny’s, sold insurance and worked at a factory…doing anything that provided flexible hours so he could help Zahra with Sourena. In 1983, while on an errand for Zahra’s boss to look at a refrigerator in Santa Monica, Ben discovered that everything was for sale. The asking price for the refrigerator was a good deal, so he inquired about the oven. Then he went down the line, checking each appliance price…one good deal after another…so he asked “How much for the whole thing?”
“$12,000”, the owner replied.
Ben had a restaurant. Except he didn’t have the money.
The first two relatives he approached weren’t interested but Ben persisted and eventually his sister and brother-in-law, Shahla (“Shah-la”) & Jalal (“Juh-lahl”) Karimi agreed to come in as 50/50 partners with Ben & Zahra. In the summer of 1984, they opened Santa Monica Pizza on Wilshire Blvd. The only movie theater in Santa Monica was next door and the lines snaked past their restaurant, making the delicious pizza aroma tough to resist. Within three months, they were making $12,000 a month in profit.
“We are so lucky.”
With Ben working day and night with Jalal to keep the restaurant growing, the family found a routine. Sourena attended a school for the disabled during the day then took a bus to the deli where Zahra worked her second job after the morning shift at McDonald’s. When she finished at the deli, Zahra drove to Ben’s restaurant and answered the phones, taking orders while Ben delivered the food.
Sanaz laughs, remembering, “Sourena & I used to sleep with our two cousins on the floor in the corner of the kitchen while my parents and Jalal & Shahla closed up at night. During the summer, I had to spend all day at the restaurant since both of my parents worked and by the time I was 9, my Dad put me to work helping out. There were a lot of times where I didn’t feel so lucky.” For Sourena, every morning was a reminder of his luck. Waking up meant he needed help getting out of bed, going to the bathroom, showering, dressing and eating. But Sourena considered himself lucky to have loving parents who helped him with what he needed every day.
Their Dad’s words were clear, “You play the hand you’re dealt.” So they each did their best. The family bond grew stronger…
By the end of 3rd grade, with Sourena multiplying 1 digit by 3 digits in his head, his teachers at Locrantz Elementary realized he was only physically–not mentally–disabled so Sourena was mainstreamed to White Oak Elementary. He was the first kid in a wheelchair at the regular school and unbeknownst to The Vasseghis at the time, many of the parents wanted to take their kids out rather than have them share a class with Sourena. But the kids wanted to stay and pushed back against their parents. Many of those kids went on to become some of Sourena’s closest friends.
At the same time, Zahra realized if she was going to keep helping Sourena with his schoolwork, she needed to go back to school herself. She and Ben sat down to make a plan. Zahra would take care of Sourena’s education. Ben would take care of everything physical. From that point on, anytime Sourena needed a haircut or his chair broke down, Ben took care of it. Zahra handled all of his reading and homework. Sourena was a quick study and his Mom usually only had to read something to him once for him to get it. She could tell Sourena was remarkably intelligent and hoped he would have the opportunity one day to do something great with his mind.
Ben’s restaurant was doing well enough to support the family and send Zahra to college to get her degree in accounting. She studied for five years, first at Pierce College, then at Pepperdine University in Malibu, arranging her schedule to take classes while Sourena & Sanaz were also at school. In the evenings, she cooked, cleaned the house and set aside an hour or two to help Sourena with his homework before putting the kids to bed. Only then did she take care of her own studies. Despite the pressures of motherhood on top of studying in her second language, Zahra excelled. She loved to read–to this day, she always has a book in her purse–and she never earned less than a B, graduating in 1992 at 37 years-old with a 3.6 GPA.
“It was little hard but I’m really glad I finished. Because of that degree, I ended up getting a good job and was able to help out Sourena a lot,” Zahra explained. To this day, Zahra & Sourena share a special bond of friendship forged by a son who could never stop relying on his mom and a mom who never stopped caring for her son.
Upon recounting her 3.6 GPA, Zahra looked at Sourena and exclaimed, “Ha! I beat you!”
“Yeah, but I didn’t study for 18 hours a day!” Sourena shot back.
“It was in my second language, boy!” Zahra replied.
“Wow…” was all Sourena could say, laughing…
After graduating from Pepperdine, Zahra couldn’t get full-time work because of the kids but found a part-time job that due to her hard work and personality, eventually went to 3 days, then 4, then full-time.
Meanwhile, Sourena was progressing through the grades, moving on to Lindero Canyon Middle School, fitting in easily. Smart and funny, kids gravitated to him. But his disability created constant ups-and-downs. One afternoon, Ben got an urgent call to come to the school. Sourena had gone down a hill with his walker in P.E.–once again trying to keep up with the other kids–but tripped and fell hard, knocking out some teeth and breaking his jaw. He had to wear wires for two months and was stuck in bed for a month, spending the first couple weeks eating blended food through a straw. The school begged the Vasseghis not to sue and assured them they’d handle the medical bills. Ben & Zahra took them at their word but a year later the Las Virgenes School District reneged and stuck them with a huge unpaid bill.
Then on January 17, 1994, The Northridge earthquake hit. Ben’s restaurant sustained massive damage and was red-tagged. Without any income, they fell behind on their home mortgage payments. Foreclosure loomed.
“You play the hand you’re dealt.”
Ben rolled with the punches and secured a last-second loan from FEMA that staved off losing everything and enabled them to open a second restaurant while they fixed the first one.
Sourena graduated from Agoura High School and enrolled at Moorpark College. While at Moorpark, he came face-to-face for the first time with the truly restrictive nature of his disability. He saw everyone around him moving on with their lives and feared being left behind. When his close friend, Arie Paller, left for USC, Sourena hit his breaking point. In Arie, he saw a version of himself if he’d been born without his disability. He refused to settle.
Sourena found encouragement from his favorite professor, Dr. Jerry Fecht, who had endeared himself to Sourena when he met him on the first day of class and asked, “Are you sure you want to take my class?” “Yeah, why?” Sourena had replied. “Because I hate handicapped people!” The ensuing laughter sealed a friendship. Sourena loved that Dr. Fecht didn’t try to tip-toe around him and just treated him like one of the guys. For the end-of-term paper, Sourena selected the option of writing his autobiography which produced the essay Jim shared with me. A few semesters later, while meeting with Dr. Fecht about transferring to Cal Lutheran University, Dr. Fecht asked him point-blank, “Have you ever considered USC?”
“Jerry, I can’t.”
“I need a lot of help.”
“Then get it.”
Inspired, Sourena set his sights on attending USC.
Three years later, Sourena accepted his diploma from Professor Jim Ellis to roaring applause. While Sourena began his job search, Ben sold his restaurant to take care of him and Zahra kept working to support the family. “Whatever we did, we always divided it so there wasn’t pressure on only one of us,” Zahra explained. “Although I worked hard at a few jobs, I always thought Ben’s job was harder because he had to take care of Sourena physically. It wasn’t always rosy and we had our share of problems but we always figured it out together.” Ben adds, “I really truly 100% love my wife. I’d spend from 6 o’clock in the morning to late at night with Sourena and on the days where I’d get tired and upset, she’d cool me down and cool Sourena down. That made it a beautiful atmosphere in our house where our kids grew up because they saw how much we helped each other.”
But Ben’s optimism couldn’t blunt his body’s pain from years of caring for Sourena. Every time he picked up Sourena and took him to the bathroom, his back hurt, his neck hurt, his arm hurt. At 5'7 and 185 pounds, Ben could handle the 5'9, 130 pound Sourena. The challenge was that Sourena can only walk if he’s supported and he lurches suddenly in random directions as he tries to will his body to cooperate. Ben broke his left arm when he was 4 years-old and it never healed correctly–you can see the bone pressing out against the skin. And Sourena tends to fall towards Ben’s left. “At times it felt like there was no end to it,” said Ben. “But you do what you have to do. Sourena couldn’t do it himself.”
How much Sourena could do, however, inspired his younger sister, Sanaz, to push herself harder…
She looked at her brother and thought…if he can do it, why not me? While Sourena set his sights on writing a book and starting his career as a motivational public speaker, Sanaz graduated from Cal State Long Beach in 2003 with a degree in sociology. She moved back home to attend La Verne University for a master’s degree in educational counseling. While studying, she worked for nonprofits involved in gang intervention and helping at-risk kids. Sanaz graduated in 2006 and went to work as a counselor for the Alhambra Unified School District, primarily working with middle school girls in group settings.
“It came easy to me and was something I really enjoyed,” Sanaz explained with her ever-present smile and spark in her eyes, “It’s really hard to be a teenage girl when girls hate you and your self-esteem is low and you don’t like yourself. I wanted to have groups where they mentored each other and didn’t feel like they were the only ones going through things.” In 2008, Sanaz beat out over 40 applicants and started working as a counselor at Granada Hills Charter High School.
Meanwhile, though Sourena’s quest for a steady income continued to be elusive, he had glimmers of success. His self-published first book won an award. He hired Rich Finley Shumate as his speaking-partner to translate for him and they started addressing local groups which lead to then USC-Coach Pete Carroll (now with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks) inviting Sourena to speak to USC’s football team. Sourena was featured on KNBC News in Los Angeles and ESPN even did a featurette about him before the 2009 Rose Bowl. But too often it felt like one roll forward, one roll back. When I first met Sourena, he was driven to use his storytelling to establish a career as well as find his soulmate. As the years went by and his goals still seemed out of reach, some days fear won out.
Will I be able to repay my parents’ retirement?
Will I ever meet my wife?
Will my Dad be able to stop assisting me full-time?
Will I ever be able to get my own place?
What happens if one day there’s no one left to take care of me?
“Having needs increases the passion necessary to fuel your success. In my situation, I realize I have no safety net, which means that I can’t get an ordinary job as easily as others can. If I don’t succeed in meeting my goals, I could end up in a group home for the disabled with nothing to do for a job. Imagining that fate makes me desperate for success. It’s that desperation–that need–that drives me every day.”
— Sourena Vasseghi
Love Your Life and It Will Love You Back, page 62 (2007)
As he moved around the house from his bedroom to the office to the living room–sometimes in his chair, sometimes on his hands and knees–Sourena’s mind spun faster, searching for a way out…
If You Love Your Life…
Sourena put together a plan to hire a PR team to help him find a book agent while starting a blog and using social media to try and build his audience. In order to hire the people he needed to help him, his plan called for almost $30,000. But after helping fund Sourena’s business and paying for his assistants and other needs out of their home equity line of credit, his parents were almost tapped out. They were still willing to bet on their son…they wanted him to succeed. But there wasn’t any more wiggle room.
Zahra sat down with Sourena, “This is the last of the money. You can have it, but after this, there’s nothing left.”
And Sourena froze up. He couldn’t decide what to do. He felt guilty for spending their retirement money but somehow, he needed to generate more income even if it meant going deeper in the hole to try and get out. The stress ate away at Sourena. He didn’t know what to do. His Dad’s bad elbow had gotten to the point that he’d needed surgery to release a trapped nerve. Every dollar took on more weight. He’d lie awake at night trapped in mind and body. Couldn’t get out of bed and go for a walk or drive to blow off steam. Had to lie there, mind racing 1000 miles-an-hour, trying to solve the problem…
And then Sanaz got laid off.
Pink-slipped as part of the the job reductions throughout the state education system.
“You play the hand you’re dealt.”
“In my family, we’ve always had financial ups and downs. With my dad having a restaurant, there were times we had money and times we didn’t. So my parents always taught us to have a Plan A, B & C. I had 6 months of mortgage payments saved up and I started working right away as a waitress on the weekends. So from April to June, I was working 7 days a week,” Sanaz explained. “I had a roommate lined up and if I had to, I’d rent out my place entirely and move back in with my parents. You can complain about something 1000 times and it’s not going to change that times are tough. If something happens to you, your job is not to complain about it. Your job is to find a solution. My friends say they never hear me complain,” Sanaz laughed, catching herself, “Well, my parents might disagree with that…but what’s complaining going to do? I turn around and see my brother who can’t walk and feed himself and I don’t hear him complaining. So I lost my job. A lot of people are losing their jobs. At the end of the day, I have a family who will always make sure I’m taken care of. But what about those who don’t? I was worried about the girls I was counseling. I had two months until my last day and I was still running groups at the school. I’m sitting there talking to these kids knowing that I won’t be able to do this for them next year…and I remember specifically this one girl’s group, I asked them to raise their hand if they’d been abandoned by a parent. And more than half of them had. So I started to feel guilty about abandoning them. Even if I didn’t have my job, I always felt like I’d be taken care of. And the thought came to me, if running groups is what I love to do, why can’t I create the counseling service for the schools anyway? A nonprofit with different types of counseling and mentoring? Girls could be in groups and develop a sisterhood and they could become mentors for therapy, drug counseling, family counseling…everything that affects teen girls. I decided to figure out how to do it. I believe that when you’re planning on doing something good in the world, you will be given the opportunity to do it if you really are serious about helping people. Even in the sense of my brother, I always figured he’d catch a break…because that’s what supposed to happen in the world,” said Sanaz.
Even though it didn’t feel like luck was smiling down on them, The Vasseghis stayed as close as ever and faced the challenges like everything in their lives. Head on, together.
The school year ended and in early July, Sanaz was officially let go.
Ben remained optimistic even though many days it felt like he couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Especially since they all started the same way, helping Sourena get out of bed, use the restroom, bathe, and get dressed. Ben’s body ached. And yet, when the family sat down to eat…
“We are so lucky.”
Sourena was still trying to figure out what to do with the remainder of the line of credit to give him the best chance to help his family.
“If your goal is to create a career that inspires you, then what has to change in your life? The path that allows you to contribute the most will open up to you–in a way that allows you to love your life more fully.”
- Sourena Vasseghi
Love Your Life and It Will Love You Back, pages 69-71 (2007)
And Zahra kept going to work every day to pay the bills. But the usually unflappable Zahra was feeling the stress. As her co-worker collected $5 for that week’s lottery, Zahra asked, “Why aren’t we winning?” Her co-worker smiled, “Don’t worry, don’t worry. We’ll win.” Just like that.
We will win.
FRIDAY, JULY 16, 2010
8pm Pacific/11pm Eastern
While The Vasseghis wrapped up another week in Los Angeles, across the country in the Atlanta, Georgia studios of WSB-TV, host John Crow welcomed viewers to The Mega Millions drawings as he walked towards two spinning bins of balls. The first tumbler held white balls numbered 1-56. The second tumbler held gold Mega balls numbered 1-46…
“Hello America, I’m John Crow. It’s Friday, July 16th and tonight’s Mega Million Jackpot is an estimated annuitized $64 million dollars. To win the jackpot you must match these 5 white balls plus that gold Mega ball. Now, let’s see if we can make you a millionaire tonight!”
Throughout the nation, players holding $1 tickets purchased in 41 different states and Washington, D.C. awaited the results as one-by-one, the numbers quickly rolled out…
And then the golden Mega Ball…
There was 1 winning ticket.
The odds of one of the players holding it = 175 million-to-1.
But what were the odds The Vasseghis had already beat to stick together as a family?
What were the odds Ben would make it to America the day before the Iranian hostage crisis would have shut him out?
What were the odds that the oxygen-deprivation during Sourena’s birth would only affect his body and not his mind, inspiring Zahra to later earn her college degree so she could help her son study, which lead to her accounting job where she met her co-worker?
What were the odds Sanaz would grow up to be generous and kindhearted, dedicated to helping others and not harboring resentment at her brother and parents for all the times she had to wait patiently while they cared to his pressing needs?
Who calculates those odds?
“We are so lucky.”
SUNDAY, JULY 18, 2010
Sanaz went out to eat with friends. While ordering a salad, she asked how much it was to add avocado. $2. “No thanks,” she replied. Her friend teased her for declining because of the price. But Sanaz was only making $8 an hour now as a part-time waitress and didn’t know where her next job was going to come from. “Well,” she replied, “It’s $2.”
Sourena spent another day at home moving between the confines of his bedroom, office and living room…working on his next book and new blog. He was ready to push out into social media and try to start connecting with his audience, hopefully showing people how his wit and mind worked and what he had to offer. He hoped people would find him.
Sourena made his way to his parents’ bedroom where Zahra was sitting on the bed counting a pile of dollar bills. Whenever she had an extra single, Zahra put it in a jar to save up for the rare times when the family took a trip, usually somewhere in California. She finished counting and turned to her son smiling, “We have $500!”
MONDAY, JULY 19, 2010
The next morning, while starting her day, the dwindling line of credit was nagging at Zahra. She turned to her husband, “Sourena’s going to need more money for his business. Somehow, somewhere, we need to make more money.”
After leaving her house at 6:00am for her daily commute downtown, Zahra walked into her office building around 7:00am. She noticed the Mega Millions sign above the Smoke ‘N Stuff where her co-worker bought their tickets each week. Someone had won the $64 million. Damn.
Around 8:30am, her coworker walked in and bee-lined into Zahra’s office, “The security guard said someone bought the winning ticket from Smoke ‘N Stuff.”
“Do we have a ticket?” Zahra asked.
“Yeah.” Her coworker tossed the ticket on Zahra’s desk.
“Go look online. I think we won.” And she walked out of Zahra’s office.
Zahra looked at the $1 ticket resting on her desk. It’d cost her fifty cents. She clicked online and pulled up the winning numbers. Started checking the ticket, her eyes moving from her computer screen to the small piece of paper…
The first number: 2… matched.
The second number: 15… matched.
The third number: 18… matched.
Her eyes got bigger, her heart beat faster…
She took her glasses off–Wait, I can’t see anything without my glasses–and put them back on.
The fourth number: 20… matched.
The fifth number: 39… matched.
Zahra slowwwwly started to look at the last number…
What if it didn’t match?
What if it did?!?
The Mega Number: 34.
Oh My God.
Zahra caught her breath. Stared at the ticket. Double-checked the numbers, not believing her eyes. And the woman who always found the best in everything…who’d been an avid reader her entire life, had a book in her purse that day like she always did…who’d spent almost 33 years reading to her son, had a thought pop into her head for the first time in her life…
Maybe I’m dyslexic.
Zahra looked out her office door at her co-worker sitting over at her desk. She quietly called her name and motioned for her to come into her office.
“Shut the door.”
Zahra held out the ticket, “I think we won.“ And the woman who’d spent the past 15 years working in accounting, checking everyone else’s numbers added, "Make sure I’m seeing it correctly. Look.”
Her co-worker checked the numbers.
They silently screamed so no could hear them and hugged each other tightly.
“Thank You!” Zahra shout-whispered.
“Thank YOU!” her co-worker shout-whispered back.
They picked up the phone and called the number for the California Lottery.
“We have the winning ticket!”
Sign it immediately, go downstairs, get it verified. Make sure you get back the same ticket. Call me back.
Zahra and her coworker casually headed downstairs, trying not to attract any attention. Zahra’s heart pounded, her brain raced, time slowed down. They showed their ticket to the woman who worked at Smoke ‘N Stuff. "I’m so happy it’s you!” she exclaimed as she verified the ticket. She was even more thrilled about her share of the jackpot–$320,000!
Zahra and her co-worker went back upstairs, called the lottery office and made an appointment to claim their winnings the next day.
It was time to tell their families.
Zahra’s co-worker left her office and shut the door behind her. Zahra took a deep breath. Up to that point, everything had been moving so quickly. Her mind went straight to her kids. Sourena would finally be able to get his own place and pursue his career without the stress of figuring out how to repay his parents’ retirement funds. They would be able to hire someone to help with Sourena to save Ben’s arm, neck and back. Sanaz could start her non-profit. Zahra didn’t think about what she could buy for herself. Didn’t think about a new house or clothes. Didn’t even think about the Laker tickets she could now afford. It wasn’t until later that her mind drifted to a couple things she would treat herself to…an iPad so she could use the Kindle App to carry more books with her. And a vacation…with her family.
Zahra reached for the phone.
Sourena was in his office at home, working, when the phone rang…
“Where’s your Dad?”
“Go and make sure he’s not working in the backyard, I have something to tell you.”
“He’s not here.”
“OK, I’ll call you back.”
Ben was driving on the freeway, hustling to take care of his errands so he could get back home to take care of Sourena, when his phone rang…
“Where are you? Why aren’t you at home?!?”
He’d never heard that tone in his wife’s voice.
Even in the excitement of the moment, Zahra’s priority was her husband’s well-being. She didn’t want him to have an accident.
“Nothing’s wrong. Just go home,” she implored, “And CALL ME with Sourena.”
Zahra sat in her office waiting while Ben finished his errands and headed home. She snatched up the phone when he called back.
“I don’t know how to say this so I’m going to just say it. You know the $64 million lottery? My co-worker and I won it.”
“Are you sure?!?”
“Yes. We verified it and are claiming it tomorrow. We get the money in 6 weeks.”
Sanaz was with a friend in a pet store when her phone rang. She’d just finished explaining why she couldn’t join their group of friends for a vacation in Palm Desert even though her share of the room for the week would only cost $100.
“When my Mom told me about winning, I wasn’t thinking about anything except creating my nonprofit.” Sanaz explained. “You don’t get money like this without having to give something back and that’s why the money was put in my hands. There were no more excuses. I had to do it. I had to help my girls.”
Back in her office, Zahra and her co-worker prepared to tell their boss. Understandably, her co-worker was ready to quit immediately. But Zahra couldn’t. “I said 'I’m not quitting until I get the money…you never know. Something might go wrong.’ And we still had to pay our mortgage.” On top of that, she was the only one in the office who knew how her position worked. “I couldn’t just-up and-leave. I’d been there for 15 years and they’d taken care of me.“ Zahra’s boss was overjoyed when he heard the news. He was even happier about Zahra’s proposal.
"I told my boss, ‘I’m not going to leave right away. Hire a couple of people and I’ll teach them everything I know. After that, I can still come in a couple days a week. When I’m sure that everyone knows everything, I’ll quit. And you can always call me if you need any help, even after I’m done.’”
As Zahra returned to her office, she thought back to her conversation with Ben that morning while getting dressed and smiled to herself…
I guess the money came from somewhere.
THURSDAY, JULY 22, 2010
I was in our kitchen in Charlottesville, Virginia, with my girlfriend, Dickie Morris, when Sourena’s named popped up on my BlackBerry. We were a couple days removed from finishing a week of classes with Rick Allred at Santa Fe Photographic Workshops and I’d had a Post-it note on my desk since getting home:
It was time to turn dreams into reality.
I answered, “Yo! I’m in the middle of something, can I call you back in an hour?”
“Yeah, I’ve got big news.“
“My Mom won the lottery!”
I froze. He’d never spoken clearer.
“No way,” I said. “How big?”
“That’s amazing! I’ll call you right back!”
I dropped what I was doing and ran upstairs to my office. Googled “Vasseghi Lottery”…saw the amount…
And started to cry.
It took me a few minutes to get it together then I called Sourena back. Asked him if I could conference in Jim Ellis. I shot Jim an email in case he was near his computer so he’d know why we were calling…
From: Jay Lavender
Subject: Sourena has incredible news
Date: July 22, 2010 10:58:20 AM PDT
To: Jim Ellis
Jim – on the phone with Sourena, he has something amazing to share with you…
I reached Jim in his office on USC’s campus where our journey had begun 10 years ago…
“What’s happening, guys?” Jim asked in his always-jovial voice.
“Tell him, Sourena.”
“My Mom won the lottery!”
No translation needed.
“No way.” Jim said quietly. "How much?”
“She’s splitting 64 million.”
Jim started laughing. “That’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard!”
Sourena started laughing too. And listening to Jim’s trademark excitement–the same excitement he shares whenever something positive happens to one of his family members, friends or students–I started crying again.
FRIENDS & FAMILY
My Dad, Harold Lavender, met Jim Ellis in the spring of 1963 in the parking lot of Santa Fe Country Club in New Mexico. Harold was wearing Hush Puppy golf shoes, a striped Ban-lon golf shirt, madras shorts and a Panama hat with a Wilson Porky Oliver golf bag over his shoulder. He strode up and introduced himself to Jim and his dapper Highland High School teammates who were all wearing khaki slacks and matching Izod golf shirts. Harold announced he was moving to Albuquerque from Raton for his senior year and they were going to be teammates. Jim stared at Harold thinking, Is this guy for real? They’ve been close friends ever since…
My Mom, Judith Kennedy, was set-up with my Dad at the University of New Mexico’s Homecoming by Judith’s Kappa Kappa Gamma roommate who was dating Jim Ellis in 1967…
My Mom & Dad married in 1969…
Ben & Zahra Vasseghi married in 1974…
I was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1975…
My parents moved to Illinois for a new job in 1976…
Sourena was born in Iran in 1977…
Judith Kennedy Lavender met Gail Galvin Sullivan when Gail’s daughter Carrie and I were classmates at the Montessori preschool in Barrington, Illinois in 1978. They’ve been close friends ever since…
The Vasseghis moved to America in search of treatment for their son in 1979…
Harold & Judith introduced Jim & Gail in 1985…
The Ellises married and Gail moved with her kids to Southern California in 1986….
Friends and family stuck together…
I moved to Los Angeles knowing hardly anyone but The Ellises in 1997…
Sourena decided that he wanted to go to USC in 1998…
And in 2000, Jim introduced Sourena and me. We spent the past 10 years working and writing together, believing something special would come out of it…
In 2010, a pair of co-workers made an agreement and honored it…
Then joined people throughout 41 states and DC playing Mega Millions…
And now we get to share our first NSPYR story with you…
33 years after a toss of bad luck in Iran, the coin lands right-side-up in America…
We’re all connected.
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 3, 2010
Dickie and I stopped by The Vasseghis’ house on a beautiful Sunday morning to visit and take some photos. A few months had gone by since they won. The check had cleared. They’d paid off their mortgage and all of their debt…even gone out for a celebratory family dinner.
Ben & Zahra had stopped waking up in the middle of the night and actually pinching each other to make sure they weren’t dreaming.
Sourena rolled into the living room wearing a USC shirt. His Dad walked out wearing a white shirt. Zahra glanced down at her blue shirt and smiled, “We’re the American flag.”
As we sat on their couch, The Vasseghi Family reflected on what had transpired and how they hoped to share their good fortune with others…
“Mentally, we were numb right after it happened,” said Ben. “We just could not accept it. For almost 2, 3 weeks, I’d wake up at 2 o’clock in the morning and I’d make a cup of coffee and go outside. Ten minutes later, Zahra would come out and we’d sit together at the kitchen table. It was a 180-degrees immediate change in our life. About a month after, my wife says one day, ‘Will you go to El Pollo Loco and get 12 pieces?’ And I spent 15 minutes trying to find a $1 coupon.“
"Friends have asked us, why don’t you go buy a home in Malibu?” Zahra shrugs, “I always wanted to have a little house by the beach to watch the sunset. But now that I can buy it, I think why would we go spend two-to-three million dollars on a little condo to watch the sunset and then sit in a dark house?”
So they’ve decided to stay in their home of 30 years and fix it up a bit…when they get around to it. Zahra did treat herself to a new car–but insisted on buying a used one with 20,000+ miles, explaining matter-of-factly, “Why would I pay $57,000 when I can buy the same car used for $26,000?”
Sourena smiled at his Mom, teasing, “She won the lottery but she’s still more excited that the Lakers got Steve Blake!”
We all laughed at Sourena’s joke and Dickie and I both blinked away tears watching The Vasseghis’ love for each other on full display.
Sanaz chimed in, “Actually, the most excited I saw my Mom was when she called me at one point and I said, ‘I’m happy for you, I’m happy for Dad, for myself…but I’m really happy for Sourena. I know how bad he wants to be successful and help people and now he can do it without worrying about the financial aspect.’”
Sourena smiled, “But the first thing I said when we won the lottery, was finally Sanaz can get spoiled a bit.”
Zahra beamed proudly, “Sourena and Sanaz called me separately on the same day. Sanaz said I’m really happy for Sourena. Sourena said I’m really happy for Sanaz. It’s exactly what a mother could hope for.”
Sanaz smiled, “My brother’s always put me ahead of him. We’ve never been selfish people. We’ve always been simple people. What makes us happy is making other people happy. The four of us each do it in a different manner but at our core, that’s who we are. I always grew up with a handicapped brother. I always grew up with these parents. You just have to say you’re lucky and you’re blessed. And that’s what my Dad used to do, whenever he could, he always reiterated the positive, made sure we were happy. And it changes your mood. That’s why we want to help people. That’s why I’m starting a non-profit. We weren’t given all of this just to keep it.”
Sourena’s writing his next book for NSPYR and rolling out his new Tumblr blog at SourenaV.com. He's excited to connect with more people and grow his speaking career to share his story, If You Love Your Life…
Not to be outdone by their children, Ben and Zahra want to play their role helping other parents of disabled children. “We’ve been to so many United Cerebral Palsy events over the years. And there are so many single parents. For many parents, when they see a problem, they come apart,“ Ben explained. "Sourena glued us together. Every time he was in a bad mood, I did not take it out on Zahra or vice versa. We got closer. We decided to be in one circle.”
Zahra added, “We also want to help parents with their non-disabled children so they don’t neglect them. There were a lot of times where Sanaz didn’t get as much attention as she should have. We got really lucky. I can honestly say I’m one of Sanaz’s best friends as well as being her mother.”
Zahra leaned back, thinking, “One of my favorite things about all this…my co-worker had the ticket. She could have known about it and not told me. She took the ticket home the night we found out and I had to trust that she’d take care of it until our meeting the next day. She liked the fact I trusted her. I gave her money each week and said, ‘When we win, just let me know.’ It’s good that people can still trust each other.”
Ben nodded and leaned forward, “The route here was hard…it was a very very rough road…but we just kept going and going. We owe everything we have to this country. We came here with nothing, for treatment. And I always believed, America was the land of the opportunity. We were so lucky to be here because if you never quit, if you never give up, if you work hard in this country, it does not matter, you can become a motivational speaker even if you can’t speak, you can write a book even if you can’t write. And by being so persistent, if you decide to not let anything stay in your way, you will make it, you will get there and in the end…Life Will Love You Back.”