The Attorneys Serving the Community group has managed to make June a big deal with their luncheon benefiting a different nonprofit. As one vet pointed out, the ASC always manages to have a keynote speaker that compliments the beneficiary.
This year’s beneficiary for the Friday, June 22nd luncheon at the Hilton was Rainbow Days, which was making a victory farewell tour for its founder Cathey Brown. And for the speaker, it was a perfect match with the beneficiary that works with kids in adversity. It was “Homeless to Harvard” author Liz Murray, whose childhood was a quagmire of adversity.
As VIP types gathered in the Peacock Room, ASC’s Kayla Carter Owens looked nervous. The group photo and step-and-repeat were scheduled to take place at 11:30. But the assigned photographer hadn’t shown up and it was 11:20. Rainbow photographer Rob Wythe offered to look for the MIA photog. Minutes later both photographers appeared in the room and the group photo was a done deal within second after some tables and chairs were moved.
In the meantime, Liz had been chatting it up with guests. She looked different from her appearance four years ago, when she spoke at The Stewpot Alliance’s Soup’s On! Then she looked like a fragile waif. On this day, she was in a bright yellow jacket and seemed more vibrant, standing tall and more confident. In making this transformation had she lost the magic that had spellbound the audience years ago? Time would tell.
In the meantime, guests made their way to the Chantilly Ballroom for the program. It was a family affair for Heather and Eric Appel with nine-year-old son Erickson Appel, who was sporting a cast after landing the hard way off a trampoline… Mindy Baxter was with her mom Pat Warren. They had attended last year’s luncheon that featured “Hamilton’s” Christopher Jackson…. Also attending was Genesis Women’s Shelter’s Bianca Jackson, who would be making a professional move in the weeks ahead.
The luncheon kicked off right on time at high noon, with Rainbow Days youngsters lined up on a stage in front of the head table. In colorful T-shirts, the little ones performed “Brighter Days” by Rainbow Days’ Montreal Williams. Just as they finished and were headed off stage, emcee Shelly Slater pulled Rainbow singer Christian aside. She explained that Christian had asked if she was a judge because “This was American Rainbow Idol.” He then had asked her if he won, could he have her dessert. The audience response ended up with Christian walking off the stage with a smile and Shelly’s dessert. She then invited other guests to donate their desserts for the other kids.
Getting back to the plan, Shelly reeled off figures like out of 12 children:
- two would witness a violent crime,
- four of them would be in poverty
- three would have addictive parents and the potential that one of them would be homeless
Thanks to organizations like Rainbow Days, children facing such challenges can be helped.
In announcing the event sponsors, Shelly revealed that the event’s co-founders Nancy Ann and Ray Hunt would be matching dollar-for-dollar for the day’s donation.
At 12:09 Shelly invited all to enjoy lunch that ended up being a quickie, with Shelly returning to the podium at 12:15 to introduce ASC Co-Chair Beth Bedell. With folks still eating and chatting, it was hard to hear Beth provide the opening remarks. She was joined by Co-Chair Jessica O’Neill in presenting the ASC Friend of the community Award to Melissa Cohen and Lauren Herrington on behalf of PwC.
At 12:24 p.m. the room darkened for a five-minute video on Rainbow Days. When the lights came back up Shelly introduced Honorary Chair Jessica Thorne, who explained how she had gotten involved with Rainbow Days and that its Founder/CEO Cathey Brown was retiring this year.
At 12:38 p.m. Cathey was on stage saying that this event marked her last big group to address. Her replacement would be revealed in the weeks ahead. Little did most folks know that her replacement — Sherri Ansley — was in the room.
Cathey then talked about the 215,000 children who had been served by Rainbow Days since its beginning in 1982. She repeated the program’s Major Messages:
- I am likeable, capable, unique and valued.
- I can treat others like I want to be treated.
- I have strengths, capabilities and people who care about me.
- I will make healthy choices and be alcohol, tobacco and drug-free.
- I believe I have a purpose.
Eight minutes later, Cathey was joined on stage by fifth grader Rainbow Days student Calise, who had been seen in the video, for a chat about how her life had changed.
At 12:53 p.m. Shelly introduced Liz, who since starting her journey as an author and speaker has been challenged by the question, “When we see outcomes for kids in adversity, what makes a difference in a person’s life? What does it take to change a person’s life?”
Liz’s story started before she was even born in an”urban ghetto where everybody aspires to move out.” As she described her parents dealing with poverty and drugs, there was a nervous giggle every now and then, like a child who was embarrassed to admit her parents’ shortcomings. No one had told her parents that the ’80s were coming. They partied their way through the ’60s and ’70s. “My sister was born first and I came two years later. We were born in the aftermath when the party was over. Our parents had become full-blown drug addicts.” Everything revolved around the need for drugs. When Liz was born, she had heroin in her system and her father was in prison. She didn’t meet him until she was three.
At the first of the month, when the check would come in, the children would have food on the table, while the parents would shoot up. That would soon end as the money gave out. Every month the ritual would take place of parents getting high, running out of drugs and diving into “How are we going to make it until the next month?” mode. Such questions as “Will we have food to eat?,” “How will we pay the electricity?” became the daily norm.
The girls would go to tenement neighbors’ doors and smell the aromas coming through the doors. They ate ice cubes and Chapstick because it was cherry flavored. For their childhood, short-term survival became the goal, not long-term planning like education.
Liz knew her parents loved her. Her mother would share her dreams with her. Her father would check out books from the library every Saturday, but they were never returned. They ended up using aliases to check the books out.
In hindsight, Liz realized that people can’t give you what they don’t have. “I thought because we had that love, it would hold us together.”
Eventually Liz’s mother went to the hospital with tuberculosis and died; her father ended up homeless, and her sister was taken to family friends. At the age of 15, Liz became a foster care runaway, “couch surfed” for a while and found herself sleeping on the D Train. She didn’t consider herself homeless the first night she slept on the subway. She had a journal that she took with her. In it was a picture of her mother when she was a homeless teenager. Liz would shoplift food; she would wander hotel hallways taking leftovers from trays. Needless to say, school was nowhere in the equation of survival. Her parents’ cycle of homelessness and a dismal future was appearing to repeat itself in their daughter.
The day after Christmas, her mother was buried in a pauper’s grave. That was the turning point for Liz. “I was going to try one more time” to get out of the cycle in which she had been raised, she recalled.
Smelling badly, looking rather shabby and having a chip on her shoulder, she was rejected time after time by schools. She was just about ready to give up. A friend invited her to go get pizza. Instead, Liz decided to give it one more try and went to Humanities Preparatory Academy, where she met Perry [Weiner], who would be the person to help her break the cycle.
According to Liz, they were exact opposites. She was dressed in “Gothic train wreck” with piercings all over, and scowling; he wore a jacket with elbows patches and was chipper and brimming with sunshine.
She was so scared of being rejected. He didn’t reject her, but he had a very important question for her. Was it about her transfer papers or some other deal breaker? He asked where she had gotten the skull and bones pin on her bag. At first she thought he was making fun of her, but he was serious. Then he started telling the worst jokes. She ended up telling Perry everything about her background, except that she was homeless.
She squeezed four years of academics into two, not letting on about her living situation. All the way Perry was pushing her forward. When she made a B+, Perry would ask why not an A. Still, despite the partnership, she never let on about her living conditions. Unbeknownst to Perry, smart Liz had figured out how to be at a facility that would provide food and had created a rather unorthodox means of surviving without breaking the law.
It was on a field trip to Harvard that she and Perry decided to have her apply for entry there. When she found out about the tuition, she thought it was hilarious. But she entered an essay contest for a scholarship sponsored by the New York Times on overcoming an obstacle. She ended up being one of the finalists. In the waiting room for the final interview, there were donuts. “No one else was eating them… they were hyperventilating.” So, Liz took the donuts. When she went into the interview there were tissues because they thought she might cry. Instead, she started wrapping up her donuts in the tissues and one of the interviewers started crying. The panel ended up taking Liz down to the cafeteria for a meal.
When she won the scholarship and her story appeared on the front page of the New York Times, her life changed dramatically. People came from her community with cookies, clothes, care packages, etc. But Liz didn’t trust them and she told Perry that. He replied, “People can be good.”
To end her talk on an upbeat note, Liz laughed and said that she is not homeless; she’s married with two children and studying psychotherapy. Her sister is a schoolteacher. “We’re doing okay.”
She concluded saying, “If you want to be clinically depressed, then turn on CNN… Cynicism is the greatest threat to change. It is the atrophy of your imagination; it is the atrophy of your heart.”
The room was spellbound once again and inspired as Liz answered her question of what makes a difference in a child’s life. It is stepping forward as a community to make a difference. She asked that the people in the room do just that by supporting Rainbow Days.