On his way home from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) Annual Conference in Vancouver, Michael McLaughlin had a lot to celebrate. He’d won the council’s prestigious TeamMBA award, which recognizes MBAs in the “business of giving back.” Plus, he had a scenic road trip, punctuated by a few hikes, stretching out in front of him. But en route from Vancouver to his St. Louis home, McLaughlin ran into some trouble.
The MBA student at Washington University’s Olin Business School was cruising through Glacier Park in Montana when he noticed something odd: his wallet, passport and cellphone were gone.
McLaughlin figured they’d been stolen from his parked car while he was out hiking. “It was unfortunate, but it actually could have been worse,” he said. “The thing was, in the trunk, I had my hammock, a tent and a bunch of hiking gear. That stuff cost almost 300 bucks. Whoever did this—if they had popped the trunk and taken that hiking gear, they probably could have sold that on Ebay and made 500 bucks.”
The trunk also held something priceless – a quilt. The square of fabric kept McLaughlin warm during his journey to become the first person to hike the Appalachian Trail and the Ozark Trail back to back—with no breaks in between. He undertook this grueling trip as part of Hike4Kids, his movement to raise money and awareness for abused and neglected children. The trek, which took six months and one week to complete, raised nearly $15,000.
Looking back on Hike4Kids, McLaughlin expressed gratitude for his experiences at the Olin School of Business, where he is still a student. “I feel like I learned stuff about finance and marketing and so forth, but more importantly, I feel like I learned about how to be a leader, and how to rally people behind a cause, and how to create a vision and then get people on board with that,” he said. “I don’t know if I would have learned that in the school of social work.” Olin won TeamMBA’s institutional award for supporting McLaughlin’s efforts.
Countless seasoned hikers have given up on the Appalachian Trail. It takes a person with superhuman focus to finish. McLaughlin had never seriously hiked before, but his reaction to the theft hints at the kind of attitude that allowed him to do the impossible. “It was a low point for me, but that night, when I went to camp and pitched my tent, I got out a notepad and pen and started working on a speech that I’m giving for a local alternative high school in July,” McLaughlin said. “I just thought I need to get back to doing what I’m really passionate about, which is helping children. That’s the main goal. Once I got back to doing that, I felt like I was excited again.”
McLaughlin’s commitment to helping abused and neglected children comes from a deeply personal place. When McLaughlin was seven years old, his mother married a man who began abusing him. She soon began abusing her son, as well.
McLaughlin remembers when the severity of the situation become clear to him. He heard his mother screaming, and her husband told her, “Your skull would be real easy to crack.” McLaughlin called 911, but when the police arrived, his mother claimed he made the whole story up.
“I had thought they were going to come in and arrest her husband and all this stuff,” McLaughlin said. “The police walked away, and my mother came in and beat the hell out of me. That was kind of the point where I realized—okay, my mother is no longer on my side anymore. There’s something wrong with her.”
The abuse continued into McLaughlin’s preteen and teenage years. “Like a lot of abusers, I imagine, she would try and take things that had some truth to them,” McLaughlin said. “If someone just says, ‘Well, you’re an idiot,’ that doesn’t really hurt you that much. You think, ‘Well, anyone could say that.’ But she would try and do things like force me to play sports, even though I didn’t want to. And then I’d go play the sports, and she would ridicule me: ‘You sat at the bench. You suck. I noticed you haven’t brought any girls home. You’re ugly. You’ve got acne.’”
McLaughlin’s mother didn’t stop at verbal abuse. At one point, she knocked him unconscious with a lamp and left him lying in a pool of blood. He recalls wondering why she never bothered to hide the incident. “For years, I put my face down in sheets stained in my own blood,” he said. “To be honest, that was hard to come back from. Times like that, I wondered, ‘Maybe there’s going to be a day where these people will actually kill me.’”
Still, even at a young age, McLaughlin demonstrated an almost mystical immunity to the negativity around him. Where others’ self esteem and moral compass might have suffered, he always maintained a belief in his ability to tell right from wrong. “I felt like I was insulated, because I always believed that it was my mother and her husband who were the ones who had problems,” he said. “I always thought, ‘Someday, there’s going come a day where I’m going to be 18 years old, and I’m going to be able to walk out of here, and no one will be able to stop me.’”