MBA student hikes for children from abused homes
Michael McLaughlin has two marks on his face. The first is a reddish, hook-shaped birthmark above his left eye. The second, lying faintly between his eyebrows, is a scar left after his mother threw a lamp at his face, knocking him unconscious. As the scar has faded over the years and the birthmark has become more prominent, McLaughlin jokes, “Whatever way I go, I guess I’ll have a mark on my face. I can’t win!”
After living in an abusive household and then being homeless for some time, McLaughlin is now an MBA student at the John M. Olin School of Business. He recently founded the project Hike4Kids and will hike 2,500 miles along the Appalachian and Ozark Trails to raise money for he Family Resource Center in St. Louis and a school for blind children in Cameroon, Africa. McLaughlin desires to dedicate his life to advocating for abused and neglected children, and he hopes that this hike will both raise money and spread awareness.
“People have different conceptions of what is meant by the word abuse,” McLaughlin said. “Does that mean you got spanked a little too hard or your mother didn’t love you enough? People say things like that, so then I give them stories from my experiences to kind of put a face on it so people know what I mean by abuse.”
Raised in a home of mental and physical harm, McLaughlin is full of stories that shed light on the true meaning of abuse. After warning of the graphic details of his stories, McLaughlin was candid about his past.
“When I was twelve years old I had lent a pair of pants to a friend, and my mom came in enraged about it,” McLaughlin began, explaining his scar. “I was laying on my bed, reading a book, and she came and slammed a lamp on my head, and it knocked me unconscious. When I regained consciousness, I was lying in a pool of my own blood, and my mom didn’t get medical care for me. She didn’t apologize. As a matter of fact, she wasn’t even in the room when I regained consciousness. I don’t know what she was doing, but she just went about her day.”
McLaughlin then realized his mother truly did not care for him how mothers generally love their children. The physical abuse and mental torment of an unstable environment made his home unhealthy and unsafe. McLaughlin recalls keeping a small knife under his pillow to intervene if his mother started abusing his sister.
“I just remember when I think of my sister having her head banged in to the wall, my sister screaming, and me thinking, ‘Do I need to go in and actually, you know, defend her with my life?’” McLaughlin said. “And I used to feel at times like I was a coward, like I shouldn’t be thinking about should I or shouldn’t I. I should just go in there and do this and to hell with the consequences. But looking back now, I can see I was a kid, and I should never have been put in that position to begin with where I was forced to make these kind of decisions.”
After finally being removed from his abusive household, McLaughlin lived for a time in foster care and then with his father, who had abandoned the family as a child. After feeling like an imposition to his father, who had a new family, McLaughlin lived in campgrounds and picked up odd jobs like umpiring at baseball games and working the front desk of a fitness center. Through scholarship programs and perseverance, McLaughlin completed community college and earned an undergraduate and master’s degree at Illinois State University.
McLaughlin arrived at Wash. U. as a candidate for a doctorate in accounting, but switched to the MBA program in order to be an advocate for abused children.
“Other people might be in marketing or finance,” McLaughlin said. “But I’m in the business of changing lives.”
McLaughlin advanced the idea for Hike4Kids after meeting fellow student Brooke James, who spent four years building schools for the blind in Africa. James herself is blind. The two of them hope Hike4Kids will be the first of many projects to raise awareness of and funds for neglected youth.
McLaughlin works with kids at Epworth Community Center, helping relate their experiences to his own, standing as an example of how the past does not have to define one’s future. He would like to launch many other missions after his return in six months, including a four-week hiking program for abused children to help promote their self esteem and instill a sense of accomplishment and dedication.
Although all of his ideas are not quite fleshed out, McLaughlin said he will have six months on the trail to reflect on them. Though 80 percent of the hikers who attempt the Appalachian Trail do not finish the full mileage, McLaughlin stresses that turning back is not an option.
“I burned my ships, and there is no exit option. I will not come off the trail no matter what happens. I feel like my life’s experiences, as bad as they were, being homeless, going without food at different times, those things in a way prepared me for this hike,” McLaughlin said.
“When I was a kid I had the temptation to believe maybe at times that there’s not that many good people in the world,” McLaughlin recalled. “But, you know, I got out of that situation, and I never stopped believing, and I found that there are a lot of amazing people out there who do care. There are a lot more of people like us than there are people like my mother, so we’ve got them outnumbered. We just need to keep moving forward.”