At the start of his talk at an all-school assembly in the Riverside-Brookfield High School gym last week, anti-poverty activist, writer and storyteller Terence Lester asked the students to clap it up to show how happy they were to be alive.
He received tepid applause.
But after sharing some details of his own life, including his near-fatal car accident four months ago, and the work he does, he asked the same question. This time students responded with loud cheering and thunderous applause.
“The energy in that room was unreal,” said RBHS freshman Aubrey Kaczmarek, who lives in Brookfield. “The room was alive with energy.”
Senior Aja McKay agreed.
“I think a lot of people were touched by what he had to say, and you could definitely feel the mood change after he was getting into his story,” said McKay, who lives in North Riverside.
Students found Lester’s message of how he overcame living out of his car as a teenager in Atlanta to eventually become an advocate for the homeless to be inspiring.
“It was very empowering,” Kaczmarek said. “I’ve never felt so motivated to help others and I’ve done work in the past to help others and this was something else. It was definitely more empowering.”
McKay also felt inspired. She was moved when Lester told the students that once when he was very discouraged as a teenager, a homeless man told him that he was going to become a very powerful leader.
“I just thought it was really inspirational to hear how one person can see you as a person, and that can change your whole mentality,” McKay said.
In his afternoon talk with students and another talk with a small crowd of about 25 adults in the evening in the RBHS auditorium, Lester emphasized the power of compassion and empathy and the importance of always seeing the humanity in others no matter their living condition.
McKay, who is biracial, was also moved because Lester is Black, and she hasn’t seen many Black adults in the schools she’s attended in Riverside.
“It just makes you realize that there are people out there who look like you that are making this a big of a difference,” McKay said.
McKay was one of approximately 50 students who stood in line to talk with Lester when he finished his talk. She got emotional because it was a deeply moving experience for her.
“I kind of broke down in front of him, because it just made me realize that I could do so much with my life and I can’t take it for granted,” McKay said.
Approximately four months ago, Lester and his wife were driving home from dinner when they got into a near-fatal car accident that crushed his pelvis. He was in a hospital for 26 days and did months of painful physical therapy at home as he learned to walk again.
Lester’s trip to RBHS was his first talk since the accident.
“It’s a miracle I’m here and walking around,” Lester said during his evening talk.
Assistant Principal Dave Mannon was the one who came up with the idea of inviting Lester to come to RBHS. Last year Mannon heard Lester on a podcast and was impressed. He thought his story would resonate with students.
As a teenager, Lester was kicked out of his high school and locked up at a detention center. He had a difficult home life and at 16 he was living out of his car, begging for money at a gas station. The father of one of his friends told Lester he could be a leader and took him in, which changed his life.
He has gone on to write six books, holds four degrees and is working toward a Ph.D. in public policy and social change. He founded the nonprofit Love Beyond Walls and estimated that he and his organization has helped approximately 500 people get off the streets. He says that the key is to recognize the humanity in every person and that those who are homeless should be treated with respect and not avoided.
“It’s nothing to be criminalized,” Lester said. “It’s a bed shortage.”
Not long ago, Lester, 39 and married with two children, spent some time living outdoors to see what it was like and how people reacted to him and treated him. He told of how some crossed the street just to avoid him. As an experiment he asked the drivers of 427 cars for a dollar and collected only $11. He learned how homeless people share with each other to get by.
“There is generosity in this community that I often don’t see reflected in society,” Lester said.
In addition to his two talks, Lester also visited English classes at RBHS and talked about his journey into writing.
Lester said that he enjoyed his two days at RBHS and was impressed by the administration and the students.
“I had an amazing time here, and I’m hoping to see great things from students at this school,” Lester said.