VOLNEY, NY – Fred Sarkis was 12 years old and working 15-hour days on his family’s fruit and vegetable truck, when he learned three important life lessons from his immigrant father.
The lessons of enthusiasm, education, and integrity or “The Golden Rule,” each stemmed from his personal, daily experiences he shared with his father.
It was the 1930s, and America was feeling the crippling effects of the most significant economic challenge of its history, the Great Depression, while even more uncertainty loomed, with the realities of the Second World War.
Sarkis, a Rochester, NY, native, who is now 88, is the founder of the Yes Pa Foundation; author of Prisoner of the Truck and Yes Pa; and a World War II Navy Veteran. He is also the motivational speaker for the foundation’s instructional program, which he shared recently with students in Bill Cahill’s sixth grade classroom at Volney Elementary School.
It was Sarkis’ eighth annual visit to Volney Elementary and he once again provided the lessons learned from his own personal adversities and the harsh disciplines of growing up as kid during the Depression Era.
According to Sarkis, his Lebanese-born father, an uneducated “huckster,” wanted more for his eldest son, and offered three important teachings that would shape him, and his life journey.
A self-proclaimed “prisoner” of his father’s fruit and vegetable truck, Sarkis would use the time working on the truck, as a study center, educating himself by the light of his lantern.
The lantern has now become iconic within the Yes Pa Foundation, and Sarkis’ learned lessons are now shared at more than 500 schools throughout the country, as well as in numerous prisons, and other educational settings.
Volney Elementary’s Cahill, along with fellow team teachers, Daniel Bartlett, and Stephanie Zimmerman, have worked with Sarkis for years, introducing his Yes Pa program to their students, while building a curriculum around Sarkis’ lessons.
“The enthusiasm that stems from the Yes Pa curriculum and Fred’s visit is incredible,” said Cahill. “We always welcome the opportunity have Fred work with our students, and have him teach them the importance of establishing goals, character traits, personal accountability, and other keys towards happiness and success.”
The smiles are contagious from both Fred and the students as a result, he added.
Sarkis tells the story of how his own lack of enthusiasm selling strawberries at aged 12, led to a confrontation with father and in turn led to the three powerful five-minute lessons.
“My father would have my eight-year-old brother and I go door-to-door selling strawberries out of the back of the truck,” Sarkis explained. “I began every sales pitch with the words ‘You probably don’t want to buy any strawberries, do you ma’am?’ which resulted in very few sales compared to my younger brother.”
According to Sarkis his father’s advice on taking a smarter, more positive and enthusiastic approach to the sale, was something he embraced.
“My father’s approach was, “These strawberries were picked early this morning on a farm in Webster. See how fresh they are. They are only 10 cents a quart or three quarts for a quarter. Do you want one or three, ma’am?”
According to Sarkis, it was this simple change in approach that shaped his success going forward.
At age 16, Fred graduated from a business school, first in a class of 70. At age 17, earning five times minimum wage, he bought his mother of eight children a home on Park Avenue in Rochester. At age 18, during World War II, he enlisted in the Navy. After discharge, at age 20, he worked full-time while attending the University of Rochester at night focusing on business courses.
He started a coffee vending business at age 24, and with his brother Joe’s help, expanded it into a full line of vending machines and an automatic cafeteria. He later expanded into the management of employee cafeterias for major corporations including Xerox and Eastman Kodak.
At 34, he became a multi-millionaire and invested in numerous high-risk investments – including a major ski area and a lakeside village in his hometown of Canandaigua, which today, although he is no longer involved, employ hundreds of people and provide recreational service to thousands.
It was 15 years ago that Sarkis founded the Prisoner of the Truck Foundation, now called the Yes Pa Foundation.
Since then, through the assistance of volunteer regional and national educators, more than 500 schools throughout the United States (including Volney Elementary) have downloaded this character education program that uniquely connects the parent, or mentor, with the teacher and the child.
“Growing up I was small, knock-kneed, pigeon-toed, dark-skinned, and a prisoner of my father’s truck,” said Sarkis. “Feeling bullied, I lacked confidence, self-esteem and many character traits that kids struggle with today. It has been my personal and foundation’s mission to help and serve others to overcome their own inhibitions or obstacles, offer advise on how to embrace failure, admit mistakes, learn from it, and move on to reach their full potential, strive for greatness, and achieve a lifetime of goals.”