Liz still remembers the day it all started.
She came home from school to find her mom sitting on the couch, staring blankly out of the window. After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, she blurted out the news.
“I am HIV positive. I’m going to die.”
Seeing the seriousness on her mom’s face Liz began to panic.
“You and your sister Lisa are going to live with your grandfather.”
Liz was scared. What was going to happen to her? She was only 10. And horrified they couldn’t just leave her like this.
But what options did she really have? Her father has just moved to a homeless shelter a short time earlier. There was no room for her there either.
“What about me?”
Mrs. Hernandez remembers little Liz well.
“She was like a daughter to me.”
Since she was little, Liz had stopped by her house to eat home cooked meals and wash her clothes.
Sadly, it was the only meal Liz would eat for the day. It would be the only time she would wear clean clothes.
Liz made sure no one knew about it. She was embarrassed of her family.
She knew her parents wanted to love her, but they just couldn’t get it together. And so her childhood was consumed by poverty, hunger, and the nonsense created by her drug-addicted parents.
Going to school wasn’t a pleasant experience for Liz.
She was constantly teased by her classmates for being smelly. She had dirt on her neck and wore filthy clothes with holes on them. Most days, she couldn’t stop scratching her head — because it was infested with lice.
Liz often skipped school to work and take care of her mother, who was sick and schizophrenic.
At the age of nine, she was the only one of the family with a job — pumping gas.
Money was clearly in short supply.
Every month, Liz’s mom and dad would get a disability check. But they would soon head straight to Ground Avenue for drugs and some fast food.
A few days later they would go hungry.
One day, her mother took the money they were saving to get by for that month to score a hit of coke. For the next few weeks, Liz had to eat out of the garbage.
Everything was a mess. Dirty kitchen. Dirty living room. Dirty bathroom. Flies everywhere.
She lost count of how many times she walked in on her parents shooting drugs into their veins.
Something had to change. But that change wasn’t for the better.
Keeping her mom alive would become all-consuming. She was just a young teen, but she decided that she had to take care of her mom. So she convinced her grandfather to let both of them move in.
But that led to even more chaos.
She fought with her grandfather, trying to protect her mom.
So many evenings ended with her grandfather threatening to kick her out. She was becoming convinced that being homeless was better than listening to her grandfather’s rants.
So she got creative.
She slept on the subway, on the streets, in hallways — and, when she was lucky, on the couches of her friends. She begged in the streets and even stole food from a grocery store — all to feed her ravenous hunger.
Through it all, she never forgot to visit her mom and help her out.
One night, Liz went to a bar where she had often been forced to find her mom and help her get home.
Scanning the bar, she was surprised not to see her.
“She’s not here, yet?” she asked someone she recognized as a friend of her mom.
“Dear, don’t you know? her mom’s friend replied. “She died yesterday.”
Liz was crushed. She had just turned 15. And despite the chaos she had already live through, she felt like her world was upside down.
She had been hoping that her mom would get better — even though she knew that it probably wasn’t going to happen.
Now, it was all her. She was all alone. Her friends had moved on. Her family was gone.
That was the turning point.
She decided to stop running from her worries and fears — and just claim her destiny.
“I said to myself, what if I woke up? What if I did everything within my ability each day to change my life — what could happen in just a month, a year? What would be different about my life.”
She made the decision to go back to school and made it a priority, studying day and night while she worked a job on the weekends. She never let anyone know — at school or work — that she was homeless.
In two years she finished four years of high school and graduated top two in her class.
And that was the beginning of claiming everything she had ever dreamed of.
Ever since her high school made a road trip to visit Harvard, she was obsessed about being a student there. “Why can’t this be mine if I really want it? What makes everyone else in this place so different from me?” she asked herself.
In truth, it was just a wild fantasy. Clearly impossible.
Until the day she found out that the New York Times was looking to make a difference for kids who had overcome obstacles.
She had hope. And was determined to get the scholarship.
It was her only chance.
She applied for the New York Times scholarship.
And, against all odds, she was chosen to receive $12,000 each year.
But that wasn’t even close to the cost of tuition.
When her story was published, readers were so moved they committed to making a difference. In no time, she had received over $200,000. More than enough to pay for her education.
Her grades. Her story. Her tenacity. All her hard work paid off when Liz received a letter from the provost that she was accepted into Harvard University.
From homeless to Harvard, her life was a story about overcoming obstacles — about dreaming impossible dreams.
But that’s not exactly true.
If you listen to one of Liz’s motivational talks, you will hear her talk about how much she loved her parents and how much they loved her, how they were highly intelligent — but rendered hopeless at parenting by their addiction and poverty.
Her mom always told her, “one day life is going to be better.”
But that never happened. And Liz realized it one day.
“Like my mother, I was always saying, ‘I’ll fix my life one day.”
And then, one day she did.
She took action. Radical action. To get what she wanted from life.
So what is that choice for you?
What do you need to do right now to get closer to where you want to be. Whatever it is, it starts with an attitude shift:
- To work harder than everyone else around you.
- To practice delivering kindness to those you meet each day.
- To be deliberate about following through on the promises you make.
- To stop completing and start competing.
- To take action when you feel fearful, frightened, or weak.
- To push past your limits and try new things.
- To spend less time complaining and more time fixing things.
It doesn’t matter what you do. It matters that you do it.
That you get started. That you take action. That you decide that “someday” is today.
Get busy being awesome.