Press Room Headlines
Right choices can make a difference
Atlanta Journal Constitution
By Gracie Bonds Staples
Dr. Christopher Leggett tells his story without so much as a nod to the American Dream and its economic and social mobility.
And yet what one hears in his story is the hopeful message that even a black kid from the south side of Cleveland, or Atlanta for that matter, can rise above his circumstances, that he can have love and honor and belonging and freedom.
Dr. Christopher Leggett was honored at the American Heart Association's Heart Ball.
Yes, he must study hard, get good grades and go to college, but for the world to be his, he must first give his life to Christ because when he does, Leggett says, it doesn't matter where he came from.
"I belong everywhere I go because my best friend owns the world" is the way Leggett put its.
And so there he was last Saturday, the skinny kid from Cleveland, feeling completely at home as the star of the 2007 Atlanta Heart Ball.
It is an honor the local affiliate of the American Heart Association bestows each year on a physician for outstanding contributions, dedication and service in the field of medicine. Leggett, an interventional cardiologist, husband and father of two, is the first African-American so honored.
This is the sort of thing that can happen when the last comes first, when things like charity and compassion become the very heart of life and, yes, your best friend owns the world.
It's why programs like A Better Chance matter. Poor girls and boys, people we too often view as having little value, who can't afford to pay prep school tuition, suddenly have choices.
When it came down to choosing between a Cleveland public school and elite Phillips Academy, Ethel Leggett chose the latter for her son. There's no question she and 11,000 others made the right choice.
That's how many students have benefited thus far from A Better Chance, the nonprofit that for more than 40 years has been finding talented minority students and matching them with prestigious college prep schools like Phillips and Paidea, Westminster and Woodward Academy.
Leggett was a ninth-grader when he went to Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., more than 600 miles away from home.
Even then he was keenly aware of the disparities around him. He knew, for instance, that the difference between Phillips and Cleveland's public schools "was like night and day," that many in his neighborhood didn't have access to quality health care; and a heart attack notwithstanding, that that contributed to his own father's death.
He graduated from Phillips in 1978 and headed to Princeton on a full scholarship.
If A Better Chance offered him the opportunity to expand his mind back then, it was a chance meeting with Denise Cleveland that led the way toward a more abundant life.
Like Cleveland, Leggett had grown up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. His father was a minister. But he lacked his friend's faith and devotion to honoring the Sabbath.
"God was like her best friend," Leggett said during a break in rounds recently at St. Joseph's Hospital. "Her acceptance taught me how to connect with that power source."
Cleveland had refused to take the LSAT on Saturday even though it was the only available testing date at the time.
"But she kept studying," Leggett said.
When a testing date miraculously became available at precisely the time she needed to take the law school admissions exam, Leggett said his eyes and heart were opened.
"It was very liberating," he said. "I no longer felt like I had to negotiate this journey by myself, that the Lord would never abandon me."
In 1982, Leggett graduated from Princeton and then headed to Case Western Reserve University Schoolof Medicine, where he received his medical degree.
He married Cleveland, did his residency at Johns Hopkins and they arrived here in Atlanta in 1989.
In a lot of ways, the Heart Ball was a celebration of both their efforts. Christopher Leggett's contributions to medicine and the fund-raising genuis of his wife and Vicki Palmer, chair of the ball and wife of one of Leggett's patients.
More than $1.2 million, more than double last year's take, was raised to fund the association's research, eduction and awareness programs.
"Denise has been on this journey with me 27 years," he said. "It was her example of faith that changed my life."
And therein, he said, lies the source of his own success. Yes, he studied hard, got good grades and went to college. When his father died at age 40, his mother went out and got a job. She never asked for public assistance. She single-handedly raised him and 10 siblings.
The math, Leggett said, didn't work, but he never needed anything he didn't have. That's what can happen with God's arithmetic. With God's arithmetic, poor little girls and boys, people we too often view as having little value, can grow up to become teachers and lawyers and heart doctors. They become the star of the ball, worthy of love and honor and freedom.
For that, Christopher Leggett is grateful.
"I belong everywhere I go," he said, "because my best friend owns the world."
©2007 Atlanta Journal Constitution
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