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Former Ottawa Panhandler Refugee Turned Entrepreneur Tells His Story

04/24/2013 04:41 EDT | Updated 06/23/2013 05:12 EDT

For a once homeless panhandler high school dropout refugee, Alfonso Cuadra has come a long way. At only 35 he is now living the Canadian dream. The now successful entrepreneur, father and noted volunteer tells me his storied life, the charities he is involved in and reflects on what he learned from all the struggles he faced at an early age.

Alfonso, tell me about yourself.

Where shall I start? I was born in El Salvador and faced two wars before I came to Canada. I lived on the streets and dropped out of school in earnest. I also became a teenage parent at 17 and hit rock bottom.

However, this adversity in my life gave me the clarity that I needed to examine my life, make better choices and become the man I am today. As I share my story with thousands around the world today as a motivational speaker, my purpose has become, How can I use my life in order to inspire others to live theirs to the highest potential?

Share with me some of the struggles?

Some of the struggles started in my home country. My mother was the head of an activist newspaper that reported on corruption with the government. For that, she was arrested as a political prisoner and was sentenced for forty years in prison. For the first three years of her incarceration, my family kept me indoors for fear that the government would kidnap me.

Imagine a three-year-old that is not allowed to go outside and play with other kids. I was more like a prisoner at that age. Thanks to the likes of Amnesty International, my mom, Vida Cuadra, was freed and was quickly offered asylum in Canada. I was five when we arrived.

Life was a veritable struggle for me and I had an instant identity crises. I remember feeling as though I was "very low on the economic scale." in Ottawa. Growing up, I was surrounded by crime and drugs and that influenced my upbringing very much.

Tell me about the transformation years.

I decided to change my ways and became more responsible at the age of 17. This was when a nurse put my daughter, Thalia, in my arms giving me a new title -- dad. At that very moment, I decided to look at myself and stop blaming the world for my problems and look within me to change. I grew up instantly then and there and dreamed how I could be a great mentor for my daughter. I was determined to make that dream a reality.

I returned to school to get my diploma and worked briefly as a dishwasher. In 1998, I raised $2,700 from friends to start my own business. I saw an opportunity where others saw disaster. I took those 2,700 dollars and started a clothing store that ultimately turned in to 15 stores all over Canada. I also started investing in real estate. I also started a site to help people sell their properties, giving them the tools they need for quick and efficient sale of their property.

You once said you were on the street as a panhandler -- that must have been an awful experience.

That experience for me was one I will never forget. I basically felt at the very bottom and I was very angry at the world. I also felt it was the best thing for me as it gave me a unique experience. I believe that you learn nothing from winning all the time and it's only when we have hardships in our lives that give us a new perspective to appreciate our future successes and then work hard to attain it.

That experience also motivated me to name my new book, From the Ground Up -- Your 3 steps away from living the life of your dreams. The book is to be translated in to a movie.

You are also involved in charity work a lot and do you have a Canadian hero that you admire most?

I admire Terry Fox for all he went through and for fighting the good fight until the end. That is what I want my life to be like. His fighting spirit inspired me a great deal. As long as charities are involved, I mostly work with the youth. I am involved with organizations that mentor and teach them to be self-sufficient.

I work with a small organization named YouCan and I are also in the process of starting my own foundation. I love working with kids, mentoring and teaching these principals of success that I have come to learn. I am in the process of creating a youth foundation that will help kids of all ages and give them leadership, communication, and successful mind set skills.

The youth are our future. If I have an advice for them it would be, if you want change your life, don't wait for the world to change nor other people to change.Once you change for the better, the world will open up to you. As the old saying goes: "the world is your oyster."