One day in a man’s life can change everything. For Stephen Fusco 98C 01L that day came when he walked away from his 12-year law career as general counsel for a medical lab to become a Georgia middle school science and math teacher at an adolescent psychiatric residential treatment facility. “I just wasn’t meant to be a lawyer,” he says in hindsight.
Fusco is indeed a courageous leader: one who is committed to giving back, making the world brighter for kids, and demonstrating that sharing human compassion often requires dedication in the most trying times. Nowadays his challenges don’t arise from solving the complicated corporate legal issues he encountered as counsel for a national medical laboratory. Instead, they come from realizing the very best way to educationally nurture and reach a child with behavioral or emotional disabilities at Hillside in Atlanta.
Radical life transformation requires guts. “I woke up one morning completely miserable,” says Fusco. In his corporate law role, “I’d been working 24/7, putting in grueling hours, and doing too much paper pushing. To leave that world behind was the most liberating and terrifying decision I’ve ever made. I had no Plan B.”
A Universe Opens
For this Barkley Forum alumnus, following his instincts made him trade his BMW for a Kia and downsized his life. My family supported my decision. “All I knew is that I wanted to help people. I quit for no other reason than that,” he recalls.
After stints at Trader Joe’s and Lululemon where he found his equilibrium again, Fusco recognized that he’d always wanted to be a teacher. He applied and was accepted to Georgia State’s College of Education, and his new course was set. Quickly he became a student teacher at Hillside, a residential school and treatment facility founded in 1888 to serve children ages 7 to 21 who have severe emotional, psychological, and behavioral challenges. He has since earned his state certification and become a full teacher. As Fusco describes of this daring achievement, “My universe opened.”
Since his Emory days, Fusco has been a fierce advocate for children’s rights who served the community through the Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic. He worked on legislation that made pimping a felony in Georgia. He is also passionate about raising issues of transparency for institutions and resolving Cold Case issues surrounding children in the Department of Children and Family Services care who are least likely to be placed. He says, “Those children on the Cold Case list are the most vulnerable to a cycle of poverty, institutionalization and prison; those children need the most services and supports from the community to break the cycle.”
Fusco translates this passion into his current role as teacher. His classroom for 9-12 children includes the services of two behavioral specialists. But Fusco is not a “sit behind the desk” teacher. Instead, he is engaging, interactive, and challenging. He often pairs students to balance learning styles and work collaboratively. “I teach my students to think critically and use technology appropriately,” he says.
Tapping into his creative genes, Fusco designs educational experiences that are as much fun as they are beneficial to students. As a member of the Atlanta Gay and Lesbian Chorus, he’s known for his singing ability. In fact, he brought “Hillside Idol” to his school and encouraged the kids to perform. Winners received personal time with a vocal coach. “It was amazing to see these kids light up on stage,” Fusco says. “My kids exhibited more confidence than their peers at other public and private schools across the country.” For kids who come to Hillside with significant self-esteem issues, watching them sing in front of their peers was transformative for them and the Hillside staff.”
“While the prospects of changing my entire identity seemed like a daunting task at the time, the rewards have been ineffable. I could never have imagined, in my wildest imagination, that following my dream to help others would transform me into the person I am today. I am an entirely different person and I came out the other side just fine.” Fusco recommends that others consider the same type of daring. “Follow your dreams and don’t limit yourself to a career or life that feels inauthentic. There is absolutely nothing stopping anyone from following their dreams. You can always re-invent yourself…that’s the beauty of the lifetime we have been given!”