Prosecutor’s life story illustrates the need for a little help from other people.
I’m pretty sure you are a remarkable person, talented, hardworking, conscientious. And no doubt you’re successful, too, at least in most of the ways you might measure success.
Your positive traits have something to do with that, but if you think about it, there were also other factors involved in getting you to where you are now, especially the interventions of other people. Adam Cornell testifies to the latter every chance he gets.
Cornell is a deputy prosecuting attorney for Snohomish County who feels “damned lucky I’m not sitting on the other side of the courtroom.”
He was one of the speakers at the Boys & Girls Clubs of King County’s annual luncheon, and he spoke briefly about coming from a family where alcohol and drugs fueled dysfunction and violence. After his mother suffered a severe brain injury in an accident and his father left, Cornell and his siblings were put up for adoption and Cornell spent years in foster care.
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His experiences shape his approach to his work. Cornell says he tries to make decisions that are in the best interests of the entire community, including victims and people who’ve been arrested for a crime.
For instance, he’s inclined to look for alternatives to jail that allow a person to heal, such as mental-health court or drug court. He isn’t lenient with people he believes should be behind bars, but he said he understands life isn’t black and white and thinks deliberately about the impact of his choices on the delivery of justice.
His early life also left him with a commitment to improve the lives of young people who have similar struggles. In 2001, former Seattle Times reporter Sherry Grindeland wrote about his successful effort to get legislation funding college scholarships for children from foster homes in Oregon. He wrote the bill while he was a law student at Lewis & Clark College in Portland.
After his speech last Thursday, we talked about his life’s lessons.
He has a sister and two brothers. The brothers, he said, were younger and cute and were adopted right away. He hasn’t seen them since he was 13. His young sister was adopted a little bit after the two boys.
At 8, Cornell was placed with Stella Mae Carmichael, who was 65 at the time and cared for hundreds of foster children before she died in 1998. She was the first and most significant influence on the path his life would take. She taught him never to see himself as a victim and flatly told him that if he hoped to be adopted he needed to “straighten up and fly right.”
Cornell lived with a family his sixth-grade year hoping they would adopt him, but at the end of the year they told him they’d decided not to keep him. He went to a foster home in the same neighborhood and when he got on the bus at the start of seventh grade, the other kids peppered him with questions, wanting to know what happened to his “family.”
No one at the Boys & Girls Clubs asked questions, he said. There he could just be another kid, and that was a gift. Even more, he was getting positive attention from adults who saw his potential.
Boys & Girls Clubs provided a safe place for him throughout his childhood.
At 14, he was adopted by a single man and moved to Woodinville, and he was chosen national youth of the year by the clubs in 1990. But in 1991, as Cornell was preparing to graduate from high school, the man committed suicide.
When he wavered about going to college, one of his teachers told him, “What’s in the way, is the way.” The teacher told him the tragedy was even more reason for him to go to college.
The club gave him stability, especially Terry Freeman, director of the Kirkland-Redmond club. “He wouldn’t give up on me. All my life, I’ve been blessed with people who wouldn’t give up on me,” Cornell said.
Cornell said not everyone has had the same pains he’s had, but everyone has challenges. He likes to quote something Ernest Hemingway once said, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” But not all are stronger, and certainly not without help.
Cornell spent four years prosecuting sexual-abuse cases and saw kids on the margins who, he said, are easily victimized because they don’t have adults to stand up for them.
Prosecutors deal with people who’ve done terrible things, but Cornell always remembers there are far more people doing good, and he said he believes they have a greater impact on the world.
“I was lucky I got placed with Stella,” he said, “but we can’t leave success to chance.” He said the idea that people pull themselves up by their bootstraps has never worked and anyone who thinks they made it on their own, “has forgotten about the people who pulled them up. We don’t get anything in life alone.”
Cornell said we need more adults who give children a hand, and we all need to support organizations that make that their mission and programs that use our tax dollars to spread opportunity.
He was lucky, I was lucky, maybe you were, too; but he’s right that children’s futures are too important to the entire community to be left to chance.