'Decide for yourself what you want to be'

Auburn Trustee's story of triumph connects with Chicago students

By Jack Smith

Auburn University Trustee Liz Huntley has told the riveting story of a little girl's miraculous triumph over tragedy many times to many audiences.

Yet it seemed to resonate with the young scholars from Chicago's Schmid Elementary School who recently heard it in an especially powerful and personal way—sort of like when hearing a harrowing story you never knew about your own family.

The students who were excited to welcome their special guest to Camp iCare stopped squirming on the colorful rug in the Southside school's media room as soon as their special guest pulled up a small chair, quickly quieting the room.

"I want to tell you a story about a little girl," Huntley said. "Her parents were both drug dealers, and she was one of five children by four different dads."

The little girl's father, she told the captivated students, went to prison for selling drugs when she was 5 years old.

Life then quickly spun out of control for her mom, a helpless heroin addict. The mother soon hatched a plan to split the children up with different family members after she determined she could no longer handle life on the edge with no help and little hope.

She penned a suicide note with instructions on what to do with the children, put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger.

The frightened little girl terrified by the cries in her home was then taken to live with her grandmother in Clanton, Ala. On the surface, it may have seemed like the chance to escape to a new life and a safer refuge compared to the violent Huntsville housing project she had called home.

Only the child's nightmare was about to get worse, Huntley told the Chicago students who were now leaning forward, hanging on every word.

Huntley told the students the little girl was still not safe from her own family. She suffered repeated sexual abuse at the hands of an uncle who threatened to kill her if she told anyone.

"She went through a very, very dark time."

Huntley paused for effect.

"Well, guess what?" "I'm that little girl. All that stuff happened to me."

The scholars gasped and waited for the rest of the story, which Huntley told candidly and bluntly. The facts provided all the drama needed.

The Auburn Trustee told the scholars she wanted them to hear her story because it is a lesson they can all learn from about the power of faith and the importance of education.

Finding hope
She credits the warm smiles and welcoming hugs of her teachers in a Clanton church's grant-funded pre-kindergarten program for giving her hope when she desperately needed it.

"When those teachers came up to me and hugged me and said come on in, baby, I felt like someone cared for the first time in a long time. They made me feel special."

It was a spark that helped ignite a passion for learning, which Huntley credits for turning around what had become a bleak and depressing life.

Huntley told the scholars she soaked up every bit of learning she could at the kindergarten, which was funded by a grant during the stressful days of integration, when African-American leaders in the community worried their children might not be prepared for first grade.

But the little girl who would show up in three tight pig tails and a neatly pressed collared shirt on the first day of first grade showed she was up for the challenge—against long odds. While her grandmother had been supportive, bought new clothes and cooked her a warm breakfast on her first day of school, she sent her to the school bus alone, even though it was a long and potentially dangerous ride across town for a 6-year-old who couldn't possibly understand the stress of integration and the angst it caused.

"My grandma said to me, you get on that bus and go over to that school. You tell that teacher that she needs to put an X everywhere on the paperwork that I need to sign and send it home. I will sign it and send it back to school tomorrow."

That's when Huntley realized her first day of first grade would not be the kind of Kodak moment many experience.

She had no hand to hold as she arrived at the school, hoping she was in the right place as she searched for her homeroom while other anxious children held tightly to their parents.

"My hands were sweating, and I was nervous."

She looked on the wall and scanned the lists of classrooms until she found the one she was looking for: "First grade."  Huntley ran her little finger down the page until she finally found her name listed under the teacher who helped change the trajectory of her life: "Pam Jones."

As other moms and dads ushered their children into Ms. Jones' classroom and said their goodbyes, Huntley sat anxious and alone on the first row.

Then Mrs. Pam Jones beamed as she approached her nervous new student.

"Hello young lady," she said in a pleasant voice. "What is your name?"

"I panicked," Huntley told the Schmid scholars. "Without thinking, I just blurted out my name and all the instructions from my grandma that I'd been rehearsing on the bus. 'My name is Elizabeth Humphrey and my grandma told me to tell you to put an X everywhere she needs to sign, and I will bring it back tomorrow. I said all that without taking a breath."

Huntley recalls how Mrs. Jones, "who looked just like Wonder Woman," flashed a knowing smile and offered as much encouragement in one sentence as the young student had heard all her life.

"Never forget how fortunate
you are to have teachers
who care."

- Liz Huntley

"She said, 'Elizabeth Humphrey, you are going to be the brightest student I ever had.' She was my Wonder Woman."

Humphrey, who attended Auburn University and eventually married Tony Huntley, an Auburn cheerleader with deep ties to the school, told the Schmid scholars to remember her story when they think of their own and just how much teachers who care can make a difference.

"Never forget how fortunate you are to have teachers who care," she said. "Teachers are amazing. Education is amazing. The greatest blessing God can ever bless you with is a good teacher."

Huntley also looked the scholars in the eye and told them they can overcome any circumstances if they believe in themselves and lean on role models like the teachers and pastors who gave her the confidence to become a star student, a law school graduate and a strong advocate for pre-kindergarten education, among other issues vitally important to children.

"I'm here to share my story with you all because I want you to know that no matter what happens to you, you can decide for yourself what you want to be."

"I believe God got me through this, and education is how I made it. Look at me. It's a miracle."

Huntley did more than share her story with the Chicago scholars. She gave each one of them an autographed copy of her book, "More Than a Bird." It was a fitting addition to this special edition of Camp iCare, a creative joint venture of Auburn's Cary Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies and the AU Early Learning Center.

Auburn's Camp iCare has 'incredible impact' at Chicago school

Many of the students carried their copies around the school throughout the rest of the week at Camp iCare like prized possessions, pausing to read them like a letter from a family member they hadn't heard from in years.

The power of the connection they made with their newest friend from Auburn was obvious by the time they posed for a selfie the author shot with her phone before heading back to Alabama. The students grinned and clung to their new friend as if they'd known her their whole life.

Just like she were family.