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Star Power: Liz Murray's Journey From Homeless to Harvard

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Star Power: A six-pack of questions for celebs making a difference.
Craig and Marc Kielburger, founders of Free The Children and Me to We, check in with some of their favourite actors, singers and activists to find out how they are changing the world.

Liz Murray's childhood was bleak. Her drug-addicted parents kept a ready-supply of heroin in their family home in the Bronx -- but no food. At 15, Murray's mother died of complications from HIV/AIDS and her terminally ill father moved to a shelter, leaving her homeless. She and her sister ate from dumpsters and rode the subways at night, imagining a better life.

"Growing up I was tough on myself," Murray told us. "I remember picturing that I was going to become this optimal person. I could even picture a pyramid, like I was rising up."

Murray saw education as the key to start climbing, finishing high school in just two years -- while camping out in New York City parks. She went on to earn a scholarship from the New York Times and entered Harvard in 2000. Murray graduated with a B.S. in Psychology from Harvard University in June 2009.

Today, she's a passionate advocate for the homeless, a best-selling author and motivational speaker who's shared her story at We Day. We caught up with Murray and she told us why a homemade quilt helped her become a better person, and why, despite everything, her mother remains one of her heroes.

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Can you describe the moment when you decided you wanted to give back?

I walked into my high school after I had been awarded a scholarship and the newspaper wrote about it. People from my community got in their cars and drove to my school. So standing in the lobby of my school was a dozen people. They didn't know each other. They didn't know me. All of them were saying, "Where's Liz Murray?" And they were carrying things like baked brownies, and packages to send me off to college, because they heard that I was homeless and that I had been accepted to Harvard.

One woman had stitched me a quilt and -- I will never forget -- she wrote on the corner of one of the patches, "It gets cold in those dorms. May you be warm by knowing that someone cares about you." That moment helped make me become a person, to make sure that I don't always think of myself.

If you could have one socially conscious superpower and change something about the world, what would it be?

I wish that I could go up to everybody and put my hand over their heart, and if they really care about something, I'd be able to do something about it. When you think of what you really want to create in this world, don't only think of yourself. Think of your community, think of your world and if everyone had that mentality, we could cultivate a culture of kindness and giving.

We work with so many young people. Looking back, what advice would you give your high school self?

Go easy. I think I was very hard on myself for a long time and I got an idea that I had to become everything and that I was not enough.

I came to realize -- I see us all reaching out to buy those self-help books, or we follow a guru -- we go after these ideas of what we should be. But I think the secret is that we already have enough to do the things we want to do. You have the quality to change the world, to change yourself.

Your own story is heroic. Who are your heroes?

Half of the answer is to say my mom. I always think of her as a hero, especially now that I am a mom. I am thinking: How do I keep it straight and keep myself sane? My mom was someone who did that when she was addicted to heroin, legally blind and mentally ill, and she loved us deeply and dearly. I think for her it was about being bigger than her circumstances.

The other really huge hero in my life is a woman who was a nanny for many years. Her name is Marie Da Silva. She took a nanny's salary, sent it back home to Malawi and sent AIDS orphans to school. She housed them in her own house in Malawi and she started a movement, sending kids forward into their education.

So my hero is any person who decides they are going to feel successful based on their own accomplishments, but decided instead to include their community--locally and globally.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit www.weday.com