You've heard of the part of New York City called Hell's Kitchen? Liz
Murray had her own version, without the famous name. But it was just as
hellish. As she and her sister were growing up in the roughest part of
the Bronx, her parents were hardcore drug addicts, often shooting up in
front of the girls. "They were barely able to provide for my sister and
me because drugs took all the income," she recalls. By the time Liz was
six, her mother was a raging alcoholic and her father's drug habit was
out of control.
Liz's parents were too busy getting high to provide for their daughters in any way. The girls never got new clothing, and Liz took to knocking on neighbors' doors at dinnertime to get something to eat. "My sister and I were very dirty and had lice in our hair," she says. "Our teachers at school were suspicious about our situation and called the Bureau of Child Welfare. But my sister and I got very good at preparing for these visits." Coached by their parents, the girls would make up stories about why they weren't in school. Amazingly, the social workers accepted the stories at face value. Year after year, the girls stayed home, watching their parents pass out and scavenging for food, and no one did anything to help.
the circumstances, Liz had no choice but to become self-reliant. When
she was nine, she started working, bagging groceries for tips, bringing
home $20 to $25 a day, which she would use to buy groceries. She also
pumped gas for tips, relishing the feeling of independence this gave
of Liz's methods of coping with her situation would powerfully
influence her future. She would hide out in her room and read unreturned
library books. So even though she was never at school, she would always
get a 90 percent or better on the year-end test that determined if she
would jump to the next grade. In spite of everything, she was becoming a
Bad Times, New Friends
1990, when Liz was 10, her mother was diagnosed with AIDS. Liz's sister
and mom went to live with Liz's godfather, leaving Liz alone with her
father. But the state got wind of the situation and took Liz into
custody for her own protection. The people at social services told her
that in 24 hours, she could be released to her mother and godfather. She
waited. No one came to claim her for 35 days! During the same period,
her father was evicted from the old apartment and ended up homeless. To
Liz, it began to look like her choices were running out.
finally released to her godfather and stayed with him for a few years,
but this wasn't much of an improvement. He was abusive, and her mother's
health was failing fast as she continued to drink. While Liz cared for
her mother, she attended the eighth grade and befriended a girl, Chris,
Liz, Chris came from an abusive household, and the girls formed a close
bond in sheer self-defense. They would skip school to wan- der New
York, and Chris often secretly spent the night with Liz to avoid going
home to her own brutal father. But when Liz's godfather learned of this
one night and demanded that Chris get out at 3:00 A.M., the two girls
packed up and ran away, never to come back.
was 15 and Chris was 14," Liz says. "We became homeless. At first we
thought it would be a big party, visiting one friend's house after
another. We believed that we would get apartments and jobs and
everything would go smoothly."
vision quickly soured. When they couldn't beg shelter from friends, Liz
and Chris would ride the train all night or sleep on rooftops or in
From Death, a New Beginning
1996, Liz's sister shared the news that their mother had died. They got
a Catholic cemetery to donate a funeral, and her mother was buried in a
pine box with her name written on it-misspelled and scribbled in magic
marker. At one end of the box was written "Head" to tell the grave
diggers which way to place the body in the ground.
indignity and sadness of her mother's end shook Liz to her core. To
make matters worse, Chris went back into the state child welfare system.
Liz was now alone and at the lowest point of her life. "I realized that
my self-image as an independent woman of the streets was a delusion. I
was 16, with an eighth-grade education, and I was homeless," Liz says.
was clearly at a crossroads. "I had learned to get by and had done well
under the circumstances. Who would blame me, right? I had every excuse
in the book to give up and become another statistic. But I also knew I
was capable of something more." But where to begin? Liz started by
asking a simple question: "What if I made the most of every day? What if
even a single action was guiding me to a greater goal? What could be
possible?" Armed with only her faith in what could be, she looked at the
problem-her entire life up to this point-and decided to come up with a
plan to change it.
she had to get a job. She found one, going door-to-door soliciting
donations in support of political initiatives. Her survival depended on
her success, and her determination paid big dividends. She broke all
sales records, and within two months, she made $8,000--even more than
step: education. The public school in her district was enormous and
could be dangerous, and Liz feared she couldn't get a good education
there. So she tried to get into a small private high school, but her
abysmal GPA meant no private school would touch her. She didn't want to
tell an admissions officer she was homeless for fear of becoming a ward
of the state again. Finally, she used a friend's address and phone
number and was accepted to Humanities Preparatory Academy.
Murray, it was as if she'd been born to study. She tore into her
schoolwork, taking Shakespeare, joining student government, and getting
at least a 96 in every class. To her teachers and fellow students, she
wasn't a homeless daughter of drug addicts. She was a star. School was
everything she had hoped it would be.
A Fateful Choice
four years' work in two, Liz graduated at the top of her class. She won
a trip to Boston with her school, and the group made a short trip to
Harvard. She fell in love with the prestigious university. On the spot,
she realized that she wanted to go to an Ivy League university, a dream
she wouldn't have even dared allow herself just two years before. Now,
though, empowered by her academic success and her soaring belief in
herself, she knew this was where she wanted to be.
how would she pay for a first-rate education costing tens of thousands
of dollars a year? Liz applied for every scholarship she could get her
hands on. One was a $12,000 scholarship offered to needy students by the
New York Times. She noticed that while they didn't ask much about GPA
or SAT scores, they did ask one question that stood out for her: "Were
there any obstacles you had to overcome?" Well, she had certainly earned
her Ph.D. in overcoming obstacles. So she poured her heart into that
application, telling her entire life's story. She mailed it in, but with
3,000 people competing against her, she didn't hold her breath.
Liz and her sister got an apartment together, but just after they
signed the lease, her sister lost her job. Bills mounted; eviction was
imminent. At the same time, Liz learned she was a semi-finalist for the
New York Times scholarship and had to go for an interview ... on the
same day and time she had to go to the welfare office to get the money
she and her sister needed to keep their apartment.
the welfare office, the clock ticked. Liz knew that if she didn't get
service soon, she'd miss her New York Times appointment. But she needed
the money! She tried to explain her predicament to a welfare worker, but
her plea got her nowhere.
had to make a choice. Stay, or go to the interview and lose the month's
income? This was it, the ultimate test of her belief in herself and her
brighter future. And in an act of immense courage, she turned her back
on the past, walked out of the welfare office, and bet her and her
sister's futures on her interview at the Times. The last thing she said
to the scholarship panel at the New York Times was, "I hope you realize
how important this is to me."
A Choice Rewarded
few days later, Liz got the news-she had won the scholarship! The five
winners were profiled in the newspaper; her life story was no longer a
secret. Almost immediately, strangers, moved by this young girl who had
come so far against such incredible odds, were coming out of the wood-
work to help. They paid her bills and the sisters kept their apartment.
People were so moved by her story that they donated more than $200,000
to the Times to fund more scholarships.
Harvard came calling. When Liz opened the acceptance letter, she
screamed. "I felt like I had wings," she says. "I felt like I could do
anything." She attended for two years, then left to take advantage of
opportunities to speak to other young people. After all, she was a
living example of what could be done with a focus on the future, a ton
of determination, and a little help from some friends.
this day, Liz credits her successes to the question she asked her- self
after her mother's death. "I attribute every single thing that's
happened to me to that moment when I had a little conversation with
myself and I made the decision to be active instead of reactive. I
decided that I was going to get up every day and make the most of what
was put in front of me. Since then, phenomenal results have come in."
2003, the Lifetime television network produced a movie about Liz's
life, called Homeless to Harvard, starring Thora Birch. Her
autobiography, Breaking Night, is due out. And she and her father, who
has AIDS, have reconnected and are in each other's lives again.
Liz has never held a grudge against her parents. "I cared for my
parents very much, and despite what was happening, I felt they cared for
me," she says. "I know that may sound strange. I had lice in my hair
and holes in my clothes, and we had animals in the house making a mess.
But my parents had a disease. If I hadn't eaten a hot meal in two days,
my mother hadn't had one in three, maybe four. They were not being
better parents somewhere else and coming back to be malicious to my
sister and me."
Murray had every reason to give up, to give in to bitterness or despair
and let herself become just another statistic. But she didn't. Instead,
she took a hard look at her problems, made no excuses, and told herself
she deserved more. More important, she believed that she had the
ability to change her present and shape her future. At her mother's
funeral, standing on the edge of a pauper's grave, she made a brave
decision: The ending of her story would be different. Then step by step,
page by page, chapter by chapter, with will, intelligence, and faith in
herself, she rewrote her life.
that is within someone else's reach is also within yours. Set your
goals no matter how impossible they may seem. Then focus on what is
between you and that goal. And then, simply take out the obstacles as