I’ve been thinking of Steve because he just underwent a triple bypass surgery yesterday. He has been through a lot, and I am praying that he recovers from the surgery as he has other things, and goes on to more good work at Pinky Swear. The story keeps on going.
Many people experience hard knocks in life. Some of these issues are self-created through poor personal choices; others just show up unexpectedly. It is how we react to these situations that allow us to continue and live our lives productively. Steve Chepokas has knocked himself down and been knocked down more than most, but he keeps getting up to live another day! He has also overcome the toughest hit of all ― the loss of a child.
Steve was nine years old when his parents divorced. It was a tough time for his mother, sister and special-needs brother when his mom became a single parent. Steve lacked the discipline he clearly needed, and it was a formula for trouble.
Steve was what some would call a “wild kid,” who became distracted at a young age with drugs and alcohol. During this time as he found some of the “wrong crowds,” he still deep down strived to do the right thing. He had some “good friends” as well who along with their families saw the good in him. They saw potential in him and took him in to live with them in an attempt to “straighten” him out. He admits, “I always wrecked their efforts by doing something stupid!” But they never gave up on him. They taught him there are always consequences for one’s actions while offering positive encouragement along the way and providing a steady loving environment for him. They became early role models, and Steve credits them for the confidence they gave him that led to his later successes.
In an effort to get his life on track, he moved to Iowa to live with his older sister. He thought a new environment with new friends would be the change he needed to start over. He had gotten his GED upon leaving Minnesota. Now a high school drop out with a GED, he looked into Community College to hopefully start a new life with his sister providing a stable environment. He really wanted to get his life straightened out. His mother and stepfather encouraged him by helping him with expenses while he was in school and living with his sister. After about a year in Iowa, again he became distracted! He made friends with the wrong crowd and soon acquired a taste for drugs again. He left school and got his own apartment to use and deal drugs. After a few months, he found himself in a drug rehab program for three months as a court ordered sentence. He got caught!
Upon his release, he moved back to Minnesota to live with his father and stepmother in an attempt to start over again. It was then he connected with an old family friend’s daughter who changed his life forever. Becky heard he was in rehab and had been in some trouble but was willing to hear him out without judgment. She believed he just needed to be heard and loved in order to live up to his great potential. She was a Christian, brought up in a loving family full of values. Her family also saw the potential in Steve and encouraged him to look to the Lord for strength and guidance. Steve credits her with re-introducing him to the faith his parents always had. Although at the time he had chosen to fall off track and not listen, his mother tried very hard to instill faith in his life. Steve and Becky married in 1987, and Steve was ready to start over with only a GED and a year and a half of community college.
There is a fine line between a great schmoozing salesman and a con artist. Steve admits he was both, as many addicts tend to be. He started a business selling electronic equipment, cell phones, fax machines, and the like as a factory rep for various manufacturers. He was and still is great at developing relationships or what he calls “asking for the order”. So with his super sales skills, he built a successful business. Then he had a problem. A customer who owed him $150,000 filed for bankruptcy. As a result of that loss, Steve went out of business too. He then was offered a job for a direct mail company and got his first company car and expense account. This company believed in Steve and gave him a shot! After really studying the ins and outs of the business, Steve formed a group of investors and started his own direct mail business, hired the right people, and began to stake his name in the Twin Cities business market. He had some good years and some not so good years. He was a young man who did not have the experience to really take him to the next level. He made some poor choices and later fell into some tax issues, which were resolved by selling the assets of the company to another group. He was paid on a two year earn out and came out with a new opportunity in the printing industry. Steve was soon recruited to sell printing services for another printing company which led to a merger and acquisition paying off with some great money. Once the merger was done, so was he!
After a few years in direct mail and printing, he wanted to start yet another business where he could work with the relationships he had previously built. He started a promotional products company calling on the same buyers to sell them logoed or other products that promote the customer’s business. With his great sales abilities and experience in two other startups, this business flourished. He earned a name for himself and in the process provided a stable life for his family for almost fifteen years. He never forgot his roots and is very grateful he can help his employees make a good living as well as provide them with health insurance and savings plans. Now he had made his life mission to give back and pay forward to help mentor someone else. He had his finances well under control, but there were more problems unrelated to money.
Also woven into those years were very serious health problems. He was diagnosed with diabetes in 1993 and now is on a continuous insulin pump attached to him 24 hours a day. In 1996 he was diagnosed with colon issues undergoing difficult treatments, and then in 2009, Steve had a double stroke. He got through all of these issues and is thankful he is still alive! He takes over twenty prescription drugs each day, but Steve never complains. His doctor once remarked, “Why is it Steve that each time you come in you look like you just won the lottery? You are always happy and never complain!” The reason? He is alive!
All of these problems would be enough for anyone, but the next issue almost killed him. His nine-year-old son, Mitch, was found to have bone cancer (Osteo Sarcoma Stage 4). It literally consumed their family life for two years until Mitch passed away on April 11, 2003. That changed Steve and Becky’s lives forever.
Steve, Becky and daughter Melissa locked down as a family spending nearly one hundred nights in the hospital with Mitch as he was fighting for his life. Fortunately, Steve had tucked away some money so taking two years off from his business wasn’t a severe financial issue. But while in the hospital, he and Mitch saw other families who did have those issues. So they began helping these other families financially. While most people think about the problem of medical bills, Steve and Mitch discovered there are other financial problems families face when in this situation. Things like keeping mortgages and car payments current, paying utility bills, and just putting food on the table become big concerns for these families. It becomes even bigger when they take unpaid leave from their jobs or quit them entirely to spend time in the hospital with their child.
Mitch was raised by generous parents who found joy in helping other people, so he wanted to do the same. Mitch learned that some families couldn’t even afford Christmas presents for their children. One day Mitch asked his dad, “How much money do I have in my savings account?” Steve replied he had about $6,000 given to Mitch from friends to be used any way he chose. Mitch wanted to give it to the families in the hospital, so he took the $6,000 and at Christmas time went around the hospital giving envelopes with $100 bills to the kids he had met in order to make their Christmas better. Eventually he would do a “pinky swear” (a contract documented by linking fingers as a sign of agreement) with Steve to make him promise to continue helping other families after he was gone. Unknowingly, it was a contract that would later elevate Steve and Becky’s life purpose and may also have saved Steve’s life.
When people experience tragedies, it brings out the best in other people. Friends bring food, call to see how you are doing, and give all the support they can to help you cope. After the funeral though, this constant contact with other people starts to wane, and in a few months, the mourners find themselves alone. On reflecting, Steve wondered, “What happened? You aren’t supposed to bury your children!” Steve suffered a heart attack that he attributes to his grief and broken heart. He was fortunate to survive, but he was still in a deep depression. Sitting home alone one weekend, the loneliness and grief overcame him to the point where he thought of ending his life to be with his son. With a gun in his hand, he was almost ready to pull the trigger when a friend called to see how he was doing. Steve simply replied, “Not good”. Fortunately the friend arrived at Steve’s home within five minutes to stop his suicide effort. But in his depression, he also needed to discover a purpose for his life that would make it worthwhile to continue. Then he remembered the “pinky swear”!
The rest of his story is becoming well known in Minnesota as well as nationally. He started a non-profit organization to help the families he promised Mitch he would in his pinky swear. The name of the non-profit is “Miracles of Mitch Foundation” which raises funds to help other families of kids with cancer in his son’s name. MOMF donates money to help with practical life needs – mortgage payments, car payments and other living expenses that may be hard to meet if parents are on unpaid leave or without jobs during the hospital stay. These are sometimes the forgotten needs of the people suffering along with their child that they actually learned from Mitch when he was there. There have been dozens of successful fundraisers, triathlons, golf tournaments, kids’ camps, New Year’s Eve galas, sporting clays, and many other events that have provided funding for the cause. He was also able to attract generous contributions from the many relationships Steve had developed throughout his career. It is soon to become a national charity that will serve families with children who have cancer no matter where they live.
Steve proved to have strength during his many problems, but this was clearly the biggest issue he and Becky had ever faced. They approached it totally unselfishly with a goal of helping people in need as they fully understood the issues these families were facing. They are now both upbeat people. Along with Steve’s promotional product business (with his wife as a partner), they are now passionate about their non-profit. Steve spends his days working in his business and promoting Miracles of Mitch. He sees the money he earns as a vehicle to help other people, and he does just that personally and through the foundation. They continue to mourn Mitch’s early passing, but their faith and new purpose in life is getting them through any difficult times. Being others-centered has taken them from focusing on themselves to bringing healing to others.
Steve would certainly not recommend his life path to anyone else; it’s been a long, hard road. He could have died from drug use, stroke, cancer, heart attack, or suicide. He is grateful to be alive. But his example of overcoming life’s problems is something everyone can appreciate and emulate. He owns his values recommending to others faith, closeness to family, and giving to others in need. He has learned a lot, much of it the hard way!
He has four Golden Rules he now lives by and recommends to others:
1. Do your best in everything you do. Give 150% as a spouse, parent, grandparent, business leader, and friend.
2. Keep your cool; nothing is worth blowing your stack. Words should be meant to encourage others, not discourage them.
3. Help someone else every day no matter how busy you are.
4. Honor God and others.
He says, “If you want to witness a miracle, be the miracle!”
Steve has a lot of life ahead of him. He is almost fifty years old (August of 2014). He is CEO of a successful company, is Chairman Emeritus and Founder of one of the fastest growing 501C3’s Minnesota has ever seen (Miracles of Mitch Foundation), was given the Excellence in Community Service Award, named Humanitarian of the Year within his industry as well as received many other awards throughout the years. He has been married to the love of his life, Becky, for nearly 27 years. He is also a proud dad who walked his daughter Melissa down the aisle when she married the love of her life, Alexander (AJ). His family has blessed him in many ways, including bringing AJ’s family (the Knapps) into the family fold. Most recently they were blessed with a grandson (Brayden) who lights up every moment of each day! Steve is a blessed man indeed with no complaints as he is the man he is because of what life has thrown his way.
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