By the time Liz Murray was 15, she was living alone on the streets of New York City. The child of cocaine-addicted parents, she grew up hungry and amid filth, her mother and father spending their welfare checks on drugs. Both her parents eventually died from AIDS, which they contracted from infected needles.
Yet, through sheer determination and with the help of people who cared, Murray managed not only to finish high school in two years, but also to earn a full scholarship to Harvard.
Now 33, Murray is the author of the 2010 New York Times bestselling memoir “Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard.” She is the winner of Oprah’s Chutzpah Award, and a made-for-TV film about Murray’s life was released in 2003.
Murray will bring her story of perseverance and gratitude to the National Council of Jewish Women Pittsburgh Section’s annual meeting on Tuesday, May 20, beginning at 5:30 p.m. at Rodef Shalom Congregation.
“The NCJW event is geared around celebrating economic independence for women,” Murray said. “I want to use my story to paint a picture of what it takes to change a person’s life.”
The NCJW, she said, is composed of “get-it-done kind of women,” volunteers who devote so much of themselves to others that they could be susceptible to burnout and may question if what they are doing actually makes
“I want them to know that what they do matters,” she said. “It takes the fabric of a community to uplift a person.”
After her mother’s death when Murray was 15, she became determined to finish high school, she said. Homeless, she studied and slept in random hallways in New York City buildings but was helped by a nonprofit in the community that gave her food. She began getting good grades, and after a field trip to Harvard with her school, Murray set her sights on being a student there but wondered how she would pay for it.
Murray then heard of The New York Times scholarship contest, which would award college scholarships to six winners of an essay contest in which the contestants had to describe obstacles they had overcome.
“I didn’t even know what The New York Times was,” Murray recalled. “I had seen people reading it on the subways, but I had never read it. I didn’t even have a sense of what I was applying for. Sometimes I think it’s really great what you can do when you don’t know that you can’t do it.”
After Murray won one of the scholarships, her story was printed in The Times. That’s when the “angels” started showing up, she said.
“Strangers started showing up at my school,” she said, giving her food, clothing, even a hand-stitched quilt. “That’s when I learned that people can be good.”
When Murray addresses the crowd at the NCJW meeting next week, she said, she intends to first thank them.
“I want them to know that what they do matters,” she said. “I want them to know how profoundly they are changing people’s lives. I want them to never give up. Sometimes you may not get to see the results of the good you do, but you are planting seeds.
“I think in this life, it’s not hard to become cynical,” Murray continued. “But cynicism is the atrophy of your heart and of your imagination. People think that what they do doesn’t matter. But that’s a mistake. If you can little bit by little bit change a person’s life, you can change this world.”
The late Judi Kasdan, past president of NCJW, will be memorialized at the event, as NCJW acknowledges her contributions to the organization by naming the Children’s Room in the Criminal Court of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas in her memory.
“Judi was instrumental in revitalizing the Children’s Rooms in the Courts, an award-winning program that NCJW continues to operate today,” said Andrea Glickman, NCJW executive director, in a prepared statement. “She was a fearless leader and strong advocate for the rights of women, children and families.”
The Children’s Rooms in the courts serve over 5,000 children a year, both from families with court business and jurors, at no cost to parents.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)