Last week, Excelsior staff, students, and families watched proudly as two Excelsior girls received their diplomas and graduated high school. Jillian and Hayley donned blue caps and gowns as walked down the aisle, turned their tassels and received their diplomas. This was an incredibly special moment for both graduates and their families because without Excelsior, they may never have graduated. Excelsior provided them with the confidence and resources they needed to finish high school. Many girls that come to Excelsior have no hopes of finishing high school and no real ambitions for their future. Without Excelsior, many of these girls would become drop-out statistics. However, Jillian and Hayley refused to be part of this statistic and worked hard to fulfill their graduation requirements and complete their therapy. So for the holidays this year, Jillian and Hayley gave themselves a gift that they will treasure forever – the gift of education and a high school diploma.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Deb began her speech by referencing a well-known story of success, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Deb pointed out four lessons that we can learn from Rudolph’s story.
Lesson One – Never underestimate yourself. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies, dragging ourselves down with self-limiting beliefs. However, Rudolph stayed positive amidst the bullies and chose to embrace his differences and focus on his strengths.
Lesson Two – Use your strengths to build upon your weaknesses. Focusing on our strengths to minimize our weaknesses helps us find more joy, engagement and success in our work. Rudolph found he had a strength that no other reindeer possessed and found success because he leveraged this strength to overcome his weaknesses.
Lesson Three – Prepare for opportunities. As the old saying goes, “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”. Even though the other reindeer teased and bullied Rudolph, he never quit preparing for the moment he would be asked to join the sleigh team. This dedicated preparation had him ready when he was asked to guide Santa’s sleigh.
Lesson Four – Take a risk. At some point, it’s necessary to take a risk in order to succeed. That fateful day that Santa asked Rudolph to guide his sleigh, Rudolph could have come up with any number of excuses, but he didn’t. Rudolph took a risk and guided the sleigh, leading himself and his team to success.
Red Wrapping Paper
Lisza Gulyas spoke to the graduates next, telling a story that emphasizes the importance of believing in yourself (and maybe even Santa) so you can overcome obstacles and achieve greatness. Lisza’s story, named “Red Wrapping Paper” was her own story – a story about being a mother running from an abusive husband, with her young son, Elliott. Lisza had to quit her job and leave her house because she no longer had a safe home in which she could live and her husband was stalking her. Afraid and ashamed to tell her friends and family what was truly going on, it finally came to a point where she had nowhere else to go. It was the middle of winter when she ran out of money and ran out of options. One evening, Elliott looked up at her and said, “Mom, I’m tired and cold – where are we going to sleep tonight?” Lisza looked down at him hopelessly and realized they would be sleeping in the car that night. So for the next few weeks, they slept in her freezing car – visiting malls or coffee shops during the day to warm up. One evening, they came across a bus station and were overwhelmed by warmth when they walked in. Elliott turned to his mom and said, “It’s warm in here, Mom, I don’t want to go back to the car”. So Lisza took Elliott into the bathroom and locked the door behind them. When a knock came on the door at 4am, Lisza woke up feeling guilty and ashamed. She thought for the very first time that maybe she wasn’t a good enough mother. That day, Lisza and Elliot walked into a mall to warm up and Lisza couldn’t shake the terrible thought that she may have to give her son up. Overcome with emotion, Lisza let go of Elliott’s hand for just a minute, and when she looked down Elliott was gone! Panicked, Lisza raced around the mall, calling his name and enlisting passersby to help her find him. She thought to herself, “I think about giving up my son and now he’s gone. What have I done?!” After a few terrifying moments, she looked around the corner and saw Elliott, sitting in Santa’s lap and whispering in his ear. Lisza called to Elliott, who jumped down and excitedly ran to her with a huge smile on his face, “Guess what Mom?! Santa is going to get us a house for Christmas!” Lisza looked at Santa and to her surprise, she actually believed it. That day, she believed in Santa and began to believe in herself once again. Lisza left the mall that day with a newfound determination to change her life around.
To make a long story short, after some hard work and a little luck, Lisza found herself in a warm house with just enough money in her pocket to get back on the right track. 22 years later, Lisza says that believing in Santa and herself, gave her the strength and courage to change her life. Lisza went back to school, earned her degree and now owns two companies. Her lesson to the graduates was this:
“Whenever you believe in yourself, there is nothing and no one that can stop you.”
So Hayley and Jillian – congratulations and good luck as you venture into the next chapter of your lives. You have worked hard and prepared for this moment, so you are already well on your way to success.