The Rapides Foundation brought acclaimed author Wes Moore to Central Louisiana for its fourth annual Symposium on September 6. Moore, a Rhodes scholar, decorated Army combat veteran, youth advocate and CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation, spoke about the transformative power of education and leadership and its impact on improving our community. He first brought his message to 3,500 school students at a morning event at the Rapides Parish Coliseum and then spoke before a group of 675 community members at the Riverfront Center. Students from Natchitoches Parish School District attended the Symposium student presentation.
The Rapides Foundation Symposium focuses on a topic of importance to Central Louisiana and is presented each September as a way of celebrating the anniversary of the Foundation’s creation in September 1994. The focus of the 2017 Symposium was Transforming Communities.
Joe Rosier, President and CEO, said the Foundation’s mission of improving the health status of Central Louisiana includes two critical components that contribute to the health of a community – educational attainment and civic leadership and engagement. For this reason, the Foundation focuses its work in three strategic areas to support this mission: Healthy People, Education and Healthy Communities. Directing his comments to students, Rosier said, “Find a place of service, find a place to contribute, both to your own self and to your family and your community.”
In both presentations, Moore shared his personal story of overcoming adversity through education, embracing personal responsibility, and emerging as an inspirational leader.
His moving life story is the subject of an upcoming motion picture from Executive Producer Oprah Winfrey based on Moore’s New York Times best-seller, The Other Wes Moore. The book tells the story of how educational opportunities, strong parental influence, mentors and a community support network helped him transcend the fate of a man with the same name who lived just blocks away and took a tragically different path to prison.
Moore told the group he was “beyond humbled to be here,” and praised the work of the Foundation. “When I first heard about the work of The Rapides Foundation, and when I heard about the focus on education, it made perfect sense. You cannot talk about education without talking about the importance of health in that conversation. At the same time you can’t have a conversation about health if you don’t also understand the role that education is going to play in it.”
Moore lost his dad at a young age, leaving his mother to make sacrifices to provide for her children. She eventually moved the family from Baltimore to the Bronx to get help from her parents. “Almost immediately after I got there I found myself picking and choosing what days to go to school … hurting the people that actually did love me so I could trust people who couldn’t care less about me,” Moore said. He was only 11 when he felt handcuffs on his wrists for the first time. When he was 13, his mother followed up on what he considered idle threats and sent him to military school.
“As soon as I arrived, I made it clear I wasn’t going to stay,” Moore said of his initial experience at military school. After several unsuccessful attempts to escape, he pleaded with his mother to take him home. “I started going through this whole list of things she needed to do to make my life easier. This is the woman who would sacrifice everything for her kids. I think my little sister said it best when she said, ‘Our mother wore sweaters so we could wear coats.’ And now I’m telling her what she has to do to make my life easier,” he said. Eventually, Moore understood what his mother had been trying to explain – that there were many people who were sacrificing on his behalf and rooting for him.
Moore ending up thriving at military school, went on to college and received the prestigious Rhodes scholarship, reserved for only 32 recipients a year. The same day the Baltimore Sun wrote a story about his accomplishment, it ran an article about four young Baltimore men accused – and later convicted – of killing an off-duty police sergeant in an armed robbery. One of the individuals was named Wes Moore.
The article made Moore question why two men who grew up in the same part of town with the same name and similar backgrounds could take such widely different paths. Moore ended up conversing with the “other” Wes Moore, who remains in prison serving a life sentence. Their correspondence and Moore’s research resulted in his famous bestseller.
“I share this story … to help us remember how thin that line is between our life and someone else’s life,” he said. “The truth is there are Wes Moores that exist in every one of our communities. People who are one decision away, people who are one policy decision away, people who are a natural disaster away from going in one direction or going in a completely different direction — people who every day are straddling the line of greatness and they don’t even know it. The fact is, our society is full of ‘others.’
Addressing the 3,500 students in the Coliseum, Moore said, “Every single one of you are here because the expectations that people have of you are high. Every single of one you are here because there are people who love you and who believe in you and who want you to succeed and there are people who want you to understand that your success will never simply be about how you did on a test or what your GPA is. Your success also comes back to a measure of understanding of what is it that you can do to help people understand the lives of other people better so we don’t have to continue having tragedies happen over and over.”
He urged both audiences to make their lives matter. “Whether it’s time to leave school, whether it’s time for you to leave your job, whether it’s time for you to leave your community, or whether it’s time for you to leave this planet, make sure that it mattered that you were ever even here,” he said. “The truth is, none of us are promised anything. So while we’re here, let’s actually do something with it. When you see a human suffering, do something with it. When you see a chance to actually use your voice for something bigger, use it. Because there is nothing more powerful than you individually and collectively choosing to embrace how impactful you can be.”