Jenni Burnam contributed to this article
Do you know a woman who has a backbone of steel, the courage of a lion, born into life unfortunate, but still has the grace of a rainbow?
Such a person, Liz Murray, was introduced March 12 to a welcoming crowd at the Dundalk campus of the Community College of Baltimore County. Murray had the crowd engaged from the start with details from her unique life.
Murray was appearing as part of the CCBC Student Life Spotlight Speaker series. As she entered the stage at the campus theatre, she requested the audience move towards the stage as close as they could get. She then proceeded to describe a “great melting pot’’ of a life that included coming from a drug-infested, impoverished background. Inspired by her mother, Liz said she was always a big dreamer.
She next asked everyone to put their recording devices away unless it was audio because she was afraid of public speaking. As she proceeded through her presentation, Murray visibly moved many in the audience, some even to tears.
In her remarks, Murray relayed how she was born in 1980 in the Bronx to parents who met at a ‘70s New York counterculture party where “speed and coke were distributed as casually as soft drinks.” Finding common ground in “shooting up,’’ the parents ran a lucrative drug scam together until their luck ran out, she said.
Murray described how she and her older sister, Lisa, grew up neglected, burdened with poverty and hunger, their childhood dominated by their parents’ drug-addicted lifestyle and mother’s bouts of schizophrenia.
As a child, she found the subtle ways to make her parents let down their guard, let her in, give her the benefit of their experiences–however raw and painful — and their love. At nine, she discovered she could feed herself and her family by bagging groceries for tips.
Murray told the audience that she and her sister learned how to scout for food, “Me and Lisa would smell our neighbors’ doorsteps to see who was cooking.”
Murray further described how her life became a monthly cycle of joy and despair. In the beginning of the month, when a welfare check would arrive, there was plenty to eat. “We had 12 Christmases.’’ However, as the month proceeded and the money ran out, Murray told how she and her sister were often driven to desperate measures. On one occasion, she and her sister had a dinner consisting of toothpaste and a tube of Chapstick. “The Chapstick was cherry flavored.’’
At 16, when her mother died of AIDS, and her father abandoned the family apartment to live in a homeless shelter, she told how she eluded the danger and degradation of the streets and group homes only by her wits and the love of her friends.
At 17, Murray decided to change her life, and found a path forward to do it. She completed four years of school to graduate from an alternative high school in only two years. Her inspiration and strength, Murray told the CCBC audience, came from teachers who cared about her well-being, and the images of success she invented and visualized to stay motivated.
However, Murray noted that she did it all while sleeping on subways and hidden in friends’ bedrooms, camping out to rest and study in stairwells and relying on the youth food pantry to eat every day.
Until she turned 18, she hid her homelessness from adults who might inform social services. On one fateful day in the winter before she graduated, she had a welfare interview with Harvard University and a third interview with the New York Times for a scholarship, which she won.
In 2009, Murray graduated from Harvard with a B.S. in Psychology. Along the way, she took time to form Manifest Living, her foundation with its mission to empower adults to create better lives. She took care of her father during the decline of his health from AIDS and through his death in 2006. She maintained her childhood friendships, traveled the world telling her story to inspire and motivate others, became the subject of an Emmy-nominated film, and wrote a best-selling memoir.
As Murray’s conversation with the audience moved to the Dundalk student lounge for a question-and-answer session, it was clear the students embraced Murray’s feelings of inspiration and her encouragement to not procrastinate, and to always have positive energy coming into a room.
Murray had explained during the Q&A the keys that helped her overcome a life of low income and scarce necessities. She emphasized how important it was to have a happy home with full support. She pointed out that even after her parents had died, memories of them helped guide her and helped her appreciate the idea of gratitude.
Murray’s life was the subject of a Lifetime movie, From Homeless to Harvard.Murray didn’t stop there she also wrote a book Called Breaking Night and won an Oprah award.
Murray concluded her remarks, noting that she exceeded a lot of people’s expectations of what she could ever be. She added that after she built her personal foundation, she started he own family.
Anyone in a struggle should hear Murray’s story. Her presentation showed a lot of great values and inspiration. If you’ve never had anyone teach you anything, or lift your spirits, this reporter is 100% sure you can’t go wrong with taking notes from her story. I’m sure that I am not alone when I say that Liz Murray will always be welcomed.
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