Rick Little's Quest

Rick Little's Quest

From Chicken Soup for the Soul 20th Anniversary Edition

Rick Little’s Quest

Difficult things take a long time, impossible things a little longer.

~André A. Jackson

At 5 A.M. Rick Little fell asleep at the wheel of his car, hurtled over a 10-foot embankment and crashed into a tree. He spent the next six months in traction with a broken back. Rick found himself with a lot of time to think deeply about his life — something for which the 13 years of his education had not prepared him. Only two weeks after he was dismissed from the hospital, he returned home one afternoon to find his mother lying semiconscious on the floor from an overdose of sleeping pills. Rick confronted once again the inadequacy of his formal education in preparing him to deal with the social and emotional issues of his life.

During the following months Rick began to formulate an idea — the development of a course that would equip students with high self-esteem, relationship skills and conflict management skills. As Rick began to research what such a course should contain, he ran across a study by the National Institute of Education in which 1,000 30-year-olds had been asked if they felt their high school education had equipped them with the skills they needed for the real world. Over 80 percent responded, “Absolutely not.”

These 30-year-olds were also asked what skills they now wish they had been taught. The top answers were relationship skills: How to get along better with the people you live with. How to find and keep a job. How to handle conflict. How to be a good parent. How to understand the normal development of a child. How to handle financial management. And how to intuit the meaning of life.

Inspired by his vision of creating a class that might teach these things, Rick dropped out of college and set across the country to interview high school students. In his quest for information on what should be included in the course, he asked over 2,000 students in 120 high schools the same two questions:

1. If you were to develop a program for your high school to help you cope with what you’re meeting now and what you think you’ll be meeting in the future, what would that program include?

2. List the top 10 problems in your life that you wish were dealt with better at home and in school.

Whether the students were from wealthy private schools or inner city ghettos, rural or suburban, the answers were surprisingly the same. Loneliness and not liking themselves topped the list of problems. In addition, they had the same list of skills they wished they were taught as the ones compiled by the 30-year-olds.

Rick slept in his car for two months, living on a total of $60. Most days he ate peanut butter on crackers. Some days he didn’t eat at all. Rick had few resources but he was committed to his dream.

His next step was to make a list of the nation’s top educators and leaders in counseling and psychology. He set out to visit everyone on his list to ask for their expertise and support. While they were impressed with his approach — asking students directly what they wanted to learn — they offered little help. “You’re too young. Go back to college. Get your degree. Go to graduate school, then you can pursue this.” They were less than encouraging.

Yet Rick persisted. By the time he turned 20, he had sold his car, his clothes, had borrowed from friends and was $32,000 in debt. Someone suggested he go to a foundation and ask for money.

His first appointment at a local foundation was a huge disappointment. As he walked into the office, Rick was literally shaking with fear. The vice president of the foundation was a huge dark-haired man with a cold stern face. For a half hour he sat without uttering a word while Rick poured his heart out about his mother, the two thousand kids and plans for a new kind of course for high school kids.

When he was through, the vice president pushed up a stack of folders. “Son,” he said, “I’ve been here nearly 20 years. We’ve funded all these education programs. And they all failed. Yours will, too. The reasons? They’re obvious. You’re 20 years old, you have no experience, no money, no college degree. Nothing!”

As he left the foundation office, Rick vowed to prove this man wrong. Rick began a study of which foundations were interested in funding projects for teenagers. He then spent months writing grant proposals — working from early morning until late at night. Rick worked for over a year laboriously writing grant proposals, each one carefully tailored to the interests and requirements of the individual foundations. Each one went out with high hopes and each one came back — rejected.

Proposal after proposal was sent out and rejected. Finally, after the 155th grant proposal had been turned down, all of Rick’s support began to crumble.

Rick’s parents were begging him to go back to college and Ken Greene, an educator who had left his job to help Rick write proposals, said, “Rick, I have no money left and I have a wife and kids to support. I’ll wait for one more proposal. But if it’s a turndown, I’ll have to go back to Toledo and to teaching.”

Rick had one last chance. Activated by desperation and conviction, he managed to talk himself past several secretaries and he secured a lunch date with Dr. Russ Mawby, President of the Kellogg Foundation. On their way to lunch they passed an ice cream stand. “Would you like one?” Mawby asked. Rick nodded. But his anxiety got the better of him. He crushed the cone in his hand and, with chocolate ice cream running between his fingers, he made a surreptitious but frantic effort to shake it loose before Dr. Mawby could note what had happened. But Mawby did see it, and bursting into laughter, he went back to the vendor and brought Rick a bunch of paper napkins.

The young man climbed into the car, red-faced and miserable. How could he request funding for a new educational program when he couldn’t even handle an ice cream cone?

Two weeks later Mawby phoned. “You asked for $55,000. We’re sorry, but the trustees voted against it.” Rick felt tears pressing behind his eyes. For two years he had been working for a dream; which would now go down the drain.

“However,” said Mawby, “the trustees did vote unanimously to give you $130,000.”

The tears came then. Rick could hardly even stammer out a thank you.

Since that time Rick Little has raised over $100,000,000 to fund his dream. The Quest Skills Programs are currently taught in over 30,000 schools in all 50 states and 32 countries. Three million kids per year are being taught important life skills because one 19-year-old refused to take “no” for an answer.

In 1989, because of the incredible success of Quest, Rick Little expanded his dream and was granted $65,000,000, the second largest grant ever given in U.S. history, to create The International Youth Foundation. The purpose of this foundation is to identify and expand successful youth programs all over the world.

Rick Little’s life is a testament to the power of commitment to a high vision, coupled with a willingness to keep on asking until one manifests the dream.

~Adapted from Peggy Mann

More stories from our partners