“I want these kids to recognize that they matter, and that if they work hard, be brave, and keep going, their life can look like whatever they want."
On Friday, August 23, Stanley Leone Jr. spoke to fifth graders from each elementary school in Dalton Public Schools. Leone is a former convicted felon turned educator whose book, No Place Like Hope, details his adolescence surrounded by poverty, violence and abuse.
The principals of the six elementary schools brought Leone to speak to their fifth grade students, hoping his story would inspire them to persevere despite any negative circumstances they may face.
Leone's presentation centered on his personal 5 B's that he lives by: Be Brave, Be in Control, Be You, Be a Hero, and Believe in Yourself. He used his own life story to illustrate these five points.
Leone said he was raised by his father who frequently abused his mother.
"When I was about your age, my dad was a pretty mean guy," Leone told the students. "By the time I was five years old, I watched him beat my mom up all the time."
As a result of the abuse at home, as well as growing up in poverty, Leone said he was often struggling with fear. These situations that caused fear in his life were also the catalyst for him to be brave.
"Sometimes there are bad things that happen that make you afraid," Leone said. "One of the things I learned was you've got to be brave. Courage isn't not being afraid, the only way you have courage is when you're terrified, and you show up anyways. It's when you keep going in the face of fear."
Leone credits his grandmother for being the one to teach him to be in control of himself and his own feelings. He remembered her saying one night, "I know things are hard right now, but you've got to choose to be happy."
"My grandmother taught me that even though I couldn't control everything going on around me, I could control whether I chose to be happy," Leone said. "I could control how I responded to situations around me."
In high school, Leone met a teacher named Monda Simmons. Simmons believed in him and helped him to turn his life around. Leone graduated from high school with a 4.0 GPA. He went on to graduate magna cum laude from college and obtain a master's degree. He currently works in education.
To date, Leone has shared his story to over 1 million people all over the world. Leone hopes that by sharing his story he is able to impact the lives of students.
"I want these kids to recognize that they matter, and that if they work hard, be brave, and keep going, their life can look like whatever they want," Leone said.