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Fire survivor to speak at United Way event
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2014 campaign kickoff breakfast

When: 7:30 a.m. Thursday
Where: Brenau University Downtown Center, 301 Main St., Gainesville
More info: www.liveunitedhallcounty.com

John O’Leary survived burns to his entire body, and will tell his story of survival and redemption Thursday to the United Way of Hall County.

O’Leary will be the guest speaker at the United Way’s 2014 campaign kickoff breakfast at 7:30 a.m. Thursday at the Brenau University Downtown Center.

“I think John’s message is one that says we all do make a difference,” said Jackie Wallace, president of United Way of Hall County. “We all do make a choice, whether it’s by action or inaction. We’re very excited about having him and we think it’s a great opportunity for our community to be inspired.”

O’Leary said he looks forward to speaking at the United Way breakfast because he appreciates the work United Way does in the community. He said the United Way isn’t “just a handout,” but an organization that uses health awareness and education to serve the community.

“The United Way is talking about connecting the community and the great impact that their mission has on not only those who receive but those who give,” O’Leary said. “So I’ll be reminding folks in attendance of the power of one, of the opportunity they have in their lives to be a massive difference-maker.”

At age 9 while growing up in St. Louis, O’Leary suffered burns to 98 percent of his body in a house fire that started when he was playing with fire and gasoline in his

parents’ garage.

“I was given no chance of surviving,” he said. “Then, through faith and family and community in St. Louis, we started to pick ourselves back up and into the possibility of life.”

Originally, O’Leary had no intention of sharing his story with the world. He said he never told anyone the details of how he was burned, not even friends or college roommates.

In 2004, his parents published a limited number of copies of their book “Overwhelming Odds,” which told the story of his accident and recovery.

The book sold more than 70,000 copies.

“That little book changed my world, because I realized the painful, scarring experience of my childhood ends up being an absolute gift today,” O’Leary said. “Subsequently, I’ve learned to celebrate my scars and share it with the world.”

Today, O’Leary is the founder of the organization Rising Above, which has allowed him to speak to more than 850 organizations in nine countries. He speaks to approximately 100,000 people annually to challenge others and to share his story.

I think many speakers speak to hear themselves or brag about how amazing their story is,” he said. “I share solely to remind individuals of how amazing their stories are, and that their best story is yet to come.”

O’Leary said his favorite part of speaking engagements is hearing from and meeting people afterward.

His discussion with the United Way on Thursday will not only be a chance to share his story, but a challenge for people to “pick themselves up” and do more with their lives.

“We, in our lives, have this incredible opportunity to leverage every moment and every experience to either push other people down or to propel them forward,” O’Leary said. “I’m going to invite them to take the opportunity to pick themselves up and those around them.”

Wallace said she believes O’Leary’s message will help the audience to remember they can overcome any obstacle in their lives to do good for others.

“We all have something we can do,” Wallace said. “No matter what life hands us or what we may be struggling with, we each have within ourselves the power to change our community for the better.”

 

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