Good stories can make us laugh. They can make us cry and they can make us think. Liz Murray told our community a good story.
The 2015 United Way Annual Campaign Kickoff event was held on Sept. 2. In hoping to draw awareness to the issues of childhood poverty in the Wyoming Valley, we invited Liz Murray, a New York Times best-selling author, to be our guest speaker. She made us laugh. She made us cry, and she made us think. Her story wasn’t just good … it was incredible!
By most measures, Liz had an awful childhood. She loved her parents and they loved her, but her parents were addicted to cocaine and heroin. There was rarely any money or food in the house and she stole food to survive. She even ate from a dumpster. She stopped going to school because she was always dirty, wore the same clothes and other kids made fun of her. When her family lost its housing in the Bronx, she went out on her own and was a homeless teenager living on the streets and in subway stations.
After her mother died of AIDS when Liz was 15, she made a deliberate choice to go back to school and worked hard. She finished four years of credits in only two years and was at the top of her class while hiding her homelessness from her school. She earned a New York Times scholarship and was accepted to Harvard University.
From “Homeless to Harvard,” which was also the title of a TV movie made about Liz’s life, is an improbable but powerful story. It was gritty, engaging and uplifting. It takes courage to tell a story so personal, but in doing so, she made all 651 of us laugh, many of us cry, and certainly made us think.
She made us think about the possibilities of our lives. She told us that we don’t really know what is possible until we are doing it. We need to ask ourselves “What if …?” and challenged us to dream big. She also warned us to not let our dreams die with us.
Above all, good stories also encourage us to act.
In quoting the legendary college basketball coach John Wooden, Liz told us, “Don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.” She talked about her mentor, a teacher whose passion changed her life, and she challenged each one of us to be that passionate mentor for others. She also told us about the “Angel Brigade,” the wonderful strangers who came into her life to help her without ever expecting anything in return. We can all be angels to others.
Liz Murray is a very busy person. She accepted the invitation to come to the Wyoming Valley because she clearly understood and wanted to support the work of our United Way. Supporting children and families will change lives, even ones that are as toxic and dysfunctional as hers was as a child. Collectively, in her words, we can help young people break through the boundaries of poverty and into lives wide open with possibilities.
In the Wyoming Valley, there are more than 11,500 children under the age of 18 living in poverty. Nearly one out of every three kids getting off a school bus each morning might be hungry or might not know what is in store for them when the school day is over. Liz Murray made us think of these kids and all the kids not willing or able to go to school because of the lives they are trying to hide from their peers or teachers.
Every child when they get older will have a story to tell about the events and people that shaped their lives. As this new school year starts and the United Way’s Poverty to Possibility campaign begins, let’s all do what we can, starting now, to build the movement and ensure more of those stories end up more like Liz Murray’s … incredibly good.
Bill Jones is president and CEO of United Way of Wyoming Valley. He can be reached at 570-829-6711 ext. 1230.