Survivor of homelessness: Be a mentor
Growing up at Liz Murray's home in the Bronx, money from the monthly welfare checks first went to drugs.
Then Murray's parents would buy food. After a week, there would be no more cash for either, so Murray, her sister and her parents resorted to other means to get by.
Murray, known today for her life journey from living on the streets of New York to attending a prestigious university, spoke Thursday at the annual Women's Fund for the Fox Valley Region luncheon at the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel.
"Adversity is not a homeless issue," Murray said. "Adversity is a human issue."
She lauded the Women's Fund and its grant recipients for helping others, and told the room of more than 1,100 never to underestimate the effect they can have on others.
"If you see a success in another person's life there are 10 people behind it, you just have to look close enough," she said. "... We don't know how powerful we are."
Murray's parents suffered addictions to cocaine, often leaving her and her sister to fend for themselves while growing up. She doesn't resent her parents for the neglect — whenever she had gone a day without eating, they had gone longer, she said.
"People can't give you what they don't have," she said.
Murray first slept on a subway at age 15. She had bad experiences in foster care, and eventually her mother was in the hospital dying from AIDS and her father was in a shelter.
She said a lot of judgment surrounds the typical person you see panhandling and living on the streets, but she's proof of the complexities behind those situations.
Charming but direct, Murray blitzed the audience with a summary of the painful parts of her life, but stopped to emphasize what she learned from it, and how it was useful to her.
Everything changed, she said, when a mentor, "Perry," invested time and encouragement in Murray and stood by her as she finished four years' worth of high school in two, with high marks. On a class trip to Boston, they visited Harvard Yard, and she set a new goal.
"Rise to the occasion," he told her. "I know you can."
Murray hasn't slept on the streets since she started high school.
She was awarded a full scholarship to Harvard University and now travels to give motivational speeches. Her memoir was published in 2010 and quickly became a bestseller.
Murray said Perry's mentoring made a difference, and that he attributed it to his mentor, and so on.
She told the crowd: "You're it."
— Katherine Lymn: 920-993-1000, ext. 7232, or firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @kathlymn