She had dropped out of school. She was homeless.
Her mother had been buried that morning.
This day was a turning point for Liz Murray, the subject of the Lifetime movie “Homeless to Harvard.”
That day instead of complaining with or about her friends, she began counting her blessings.
During her talk to the Tennessee Church of God camp meeting Friday, Murray shared her life story and challenged her audience to make a positive difference in people’s lives.
Murray said she is from the part of the Bronx that people think of when they hear the phrase “inner city urban ghetto.”
“We landed there because well, my parents partied a little too hard in the 1970s,” Murray said. “Along with partying came drugs and they got high pretty consistently … I came to realize later that my sister Lisa and I, grew up in the aftermath of what happened when the party was over.”
They and the majority of their neighbors lived on welfare checks that came at the first of the month.
“The mailman was like an urban Santa Claus. We loved him. He put our checks in the box on the first. And when he did, you would watch life get pushed into that neighborhood. You would watch people do the right thing with those checks, for the most part. They would pay their rent, they would fill up the refrigerator,” Murray said.
Addiction drove Murray’s parent’s actions. Cocaine and heroin were the first purchase when the check was cashed.
Then, the family spent about $35 on groceries.
“By day eight or day nine, they were going to run out of drugs. We ran out of money. We certainly ran out of food. Then the burning question was, ‘How are we going to get to the next first of the month?’” Murray said. “That was the culture of our home it was a culture of survival.”
She said she remembers hearing her parents as they tried to figure out if the family would be able to eat that day.
“I believe people will grow into the conversations you create around them. How we speak about things helps to shape our attitude,” Murray said.
For Murray, hearing constant conversation about survival made her come to believe maybe that was all she would be able to do – survive.
The thought that life can be better never surfaced.
Many times Murray and her sister had to figure out their own survival because their parents were high. They began knocking on neighbor’s doors in their apartment building when they knew the neighbors were about to eat.
“There is a lot of good in these neighborhoods. People will care about you. It’s a community,” Murray said.
People would let them in and feed them. However, as the last week of the month came and everyone was waiting for the next check, their neighbors could no longer afford to help.
Murray and her sister would eat ice, Chapstick and toothpaste.
Murray said as a child it did not really sink in how bad things were. She felt her family was going to be OK.
“Because the thinking is the next check will come and everything will be fine,” Murray said.
Despite their addiction, Murray said she loved her parents and knew her parents loved her.
“I was not angry at their drug use. I am one of those people who believes addiction is a disease. I think when people are using, it is the same as people being sick,” Murray said. “I knew mom and dad were sick.”
Her mother tucked her in and kissed her at night. She had “this light in eyes.” Her father took her to the library and encouraged her to like reading. She said she watched her parents sacrifice and give her and her sister what they could.
“I needed a new winter coat, but I couldn’t take my eyes off my father’s sneakers because they were held together by duct tape. They were cracked and breaking. They were falling off his feet,” Murray said. “I guess the bottom line is … People can’t give you what they don’t have.”
Each of her parents also had a mental illness.
Murray said she realized her life was going to be her responsibility.
When her mother became HIV positive from sharing drug needles, the family’s world fell apart. Her mom was living at the hospital and in hospice. Her father went to a homeless shelter. Her sister was taken in by a neighbor. Murray was put in a foster care group home.
After a negative experience with foster care and no help from her social worker, Murray “decided not to go back.”
She was 13 at the time.
The staff had a “lasting and negative” impact on Murray’s life “because I thought there were no safe places in foster care, which is actually not true.”
Murray encouraged her audience to realize that everything they do has an impact on the people around them, whether for good or for bad.
“We are affected by the people around us. You don’t have a neutral option,” Murray said.
She slept on friends’ couches and visited her mother. Then, she began visiting less, because it was hard to see her mom battling the disease.
“I just felt hopeless,” Murray said.
By the time she was 15, the friends letting her sleep on their couch grew fewer and fewer. She often slept on the subway or in hallways.
Because of her home situation, Murray had not been going to school regularly.
“I was the worst student you could possibly imagine,” Murray said.
When she became homeless, she stopped going.
She began shoplifting food to survive.
Murray said at the time she felt like there was a wall between her and the rest of the world. She felt she could not be successful at life because she didn’t know how.
Despite this, “what ifs” of success still came to her in her dreams.
She said her mother’s death was a wakeup call that she could not keep putting off following her “what ifs.”
She was 16.
“Have you ever had an experience that completely changed your life?” Murray said.
She knew from then on she wanted to be different, and she was. She decided to stop putting off trying to better her life, like she had put off visiting her mother.
She sat on a couch that day hearing her friends complain and started to get annoyed.
“The next thought came quickly, ‘Liz, you are lucky to have those friends. They love you,’” she said.
She said seeing her mother in a pine box someone had donated so she could be buried gave Murray perspective.
She began thinking of other things she was thankful for – good health, life and living in New York.
“If you aren’t grateful for what you have, what makes you think you will be if you have more,” Murray said. “Everything you have, you could just as easily not have.”
As she started looking for a public high school that would accept her at her age, going back to school became more difficult. Many told her no.
“By the time I got it together, I was the same age as someone who was graduating but I was starting,” Murray said. “I came very close to giving up.”
She had an interview at another school, but her friends invited her to get pizza. After being told, ‘No,’ so many times she almost spent the money for the train for pizza instead. However, the thought of, “what if they said yes,” changed her mind.
“That was the school that accepted me. That is where I changed my life. That is where I met my mentor and wonderful teacher,” Murray said.
The mentor was Perry. During the interview, Perry looked at this Goth, multi-colored hair girl and tried to break down her wall of isolation to build a positive relationship.
Murray said she sat with her back to him as he asked the story behind a pin on her backpack and told her jokes.
“It was like I couldn’t help it. I just started laughing. I think you know when people care about you and you know when they don’t. It’s an instinct. I knew he cared,” Murray said.
“I decided to tell him everything [including that she considered possibly trying to make straight A’s].”
However, she didn’t tell him she was homeless.
As her mentor, Perry held her to what she said and “encouraged her to work hard.” She chose to go for straight A’s.
“When you look at someone like they are broken, they will always behave as if they need to be fixed. Instead he looked at us and he held each student to what was possible for us.”
By doing day classes, night school, independent study and Saturday classes, Murray completed her high school credits in two years.
She got straight A’s every semester.
“What’s your ‘What if?’” Murray asked her audience.
When she went back to school, she found out about a nonprofit in her community that helped homeless youth. She was able to get food, health care and clothes.
“I have never met someone who has had some success in their life that hasn’t been helped along the way,” Murray said. “I believe we have no idea how powerful we are when it comes to making contributions in the lives of others.”
She encouraged people to look at ways to contribute to the situations in which they find themselves, rather than just trying to get something out of it.
One weekend, Perry took Murray and nine of the other top students at the school to Boston. Harvard Yard was one stop on the trip.
As they were leaving, Perry and Murray had the same thought. What if she applied to Harvard?
“You know what Liz, it would be a reach but it’s not impossible. Why don’t you apply here,” Perry said.
In order to cover the cost in case she got in, Murray applied for every scholarship of which she heard.
“The scholarship that changed everything was from the New York Times. It was $12,000 a year,” Murray said.
The initial application asked for an essay outlining any obstacles the applicant had overcome.
On the same day, Murray was rejected to receive food stamps during the morning. She had favorable interviews with Harvard University and The New York Times for the scholarship.
“I had never read the New York Times,” Murray said. “I knew they were kind of important, because I saw people reading them on the train. … How wonderful to be oblivious to how scary something is supposed to be … How many times in your own life have you thought about doing something that seems tremendous but once you have the courage to say it out loud, you have one friend who starts to tell you how impractical you are being?”
Murray said people often keep themselves from achieving great things from “paralysis by analysis … possibility lives in action.”
After she was chosen as a recipient of the scholarship, her story was published in the New York Times.
“And things have never been the same,” Murray said.
People who she had never known began showing up at her school to give her things. The community came together and paid for her and her sister, along with another homeless woman to get an apartment, utilities and food.
“I didn’t know people could be good,” Perry said.
It was these people who ensured that Murray’s “me and them” separated from the rest of the world mental wall came crashing down.
“I never spent another night on the street ever again,” Murray said.
Later, she was accepted to Harvard University.
Murray has now shared her story across the country.
Murray began sharing her story in public high schools in New York encouraging students to stay in school and not give up on themselves. She said these schools have a reputation of being a “very scary place to go.”
Despite a fear of public speaking, Murray got through those first few meetings and started getting invitations to speak to more students.
“I just wanted to be useful,” Murray said.
When her story was featured on 20/20, it brought letters from all over the country of people facing difficult challenges.
“And I realized maybe my pain is not that different. Maybe we all know what it feels like to give up on yourself,” Murray said.
Then conventions began asking her to speak.
“Even though you may feel alone in this life, sometimes you don’t walk alone,” Murray said.
She encouraged her audience not to get depressed at the vastness of a problem but to “be willing to do our part.”