Liz Murray was only three years old when she realized that her parents were drug addicts. As the addiction unraveled her family, Liz, along with her older sister Lisa, found themselves living in filth and constantly hungry. Her parents spent most of the monthly welfare check on drugs, leaving only $30 per month for food and essentials. Liz recalls when her mother begged, “Lizzy, I’m not a monster. I just can’t stop. Sweetheart forgive me.” Liz later found out that both parents had been sharing their needles with other addicts, and in 1990 her mother was diagnosed as HIV positive. “You can only live this way for so long before something happens,” Liz says.

With a mother in and out of hospital, and a father who was still heavily addicted to heroin, Liz eventually ended up on the streets. In 1996, just before Christmas, Liz’s mother died. “She was alone when she passed away. We buried her in this service – they donated a pine box. Someone took a black magic marker, they misspelled her name.” Her mother’s death inspired Liz to change her life. She decided go to high school, even though she was still homeless. After many rejections, she opted for an alternative high school – Humanities Preparatory Academy in Chelsea, Manhattan. Liz was beginning high school at a time most teenagers were graduating, but she promised herself to become a straight-A student. Every morning she would rise at dawn and sneak past a room full of homeless people asleep on mattresses. Some chided her, “Why bother,” but Liz was already living her life in crescendo and never missed a day of school.

As she approached high school graduation, teachers took Liz on a school trip to Boston – her first time out of New York. “The last thing we did was go to Harvard Yard, simply because we were supposed to take a picture in front of the John Harvard statue.” Sensing her excitement, a teacher suggested she apply but, with no money, and still homeless – a secret she had kept from everyone at school – Harvard seemed out of reach.

“I knew I needed scholarships,” she says. “Finally, there was one from the New York Times. $12,000 per year–every year of school.” In her application, Liz had to detail what obstacles she had faced in order to achieve academic success. For many of her friends and teachers, it was the first they had heard about her past struggles. “I remember coming in [to school] and the lobby was filled with people. They didn’t know each other. They were people who read the article, got in their cars, drove to the school… ‘Can we help Liz?’”

With a scholarship in hand, Liz started her studies at Harvard. While she was there, she began public speaking – helping people who, like herself, had an almost impossible mountain to climb to succeed in life. As she was finishing her studies, Aids was taking the life of her father. Travelling back to take care of him, Liz says she took some comfort in knowing that her father had died a sober man. “When someone gets sober, it’s almost like meeting them for the first time. Just before he passed away, he wrote me this card. ‘Lizzy, I left my dreams behind a long time ago. But I know now they’re safe with you. Now we’re a family again.’”

Murray’s inspirational story was captured on Lifetime Television’s original film in 2003, Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story, which was nominated for three Emmys. Now she makes her living as a motivational speaker and founder of Manifest Living, a company which offers workshops for people wanting to change their circumstances. She has been featured on ABC News 20/20, Good Morning America, the Today Show, CNN, and featured in The New York Times, as well as numerous other media outlets. She is also the author of the New York Times bestselling Breaking Night, her memoir, which was released in September 2010. She has been awarded the White House Project’s Role Model Award, a Christopher Award as well as being among the first to receive from Oprah Winfrey, the “Chutzpah Award.”

The next time someone tries to dissuade you from your goals of living life in crescendo, do yourself a favor and think of Liz.

Take the TEST–Are you Living your Life in Crescendo?

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