On Tuesday, April 14 2015, Clay Zamperini spoke to a group of at-risk teenagers at Sunburst Youth Academy in Los Alamitos, CA. Sunburst Youth Academy is the leading alternative education program for High School Dropouts.
The weekend prior to his appearance, the students at Sunburst were shown the film Unbroken over the span of two days. "After watching the first half of the film on Saturday, all I heard from the cadets was 'when can we finish the movie?' I've never seen them respond to something quite like this before," noted one staff member.
A documentary detailing the true story of Louis Zamperini was shown to the students, preparing them for what Clay had to share. "People always ask me, 'What is it like being Louis Zamperini's grandson?" Clay noted that what made his grandfather such an extraordinary man wasn't his athletic prowess, his survival at sea, or his experience in a Japanese POW camp. "It was the content of his character that made him the amazing man that he was. Now what do I mean by that? I mean that there were several rules, or values that he adhered to throughout his life. These values influenced every choice he made, how he decided to treat other people, and ultimately, how he viewed life."
In addition to sharing his grandfathers story, Clay shared his insights on survival and forgiveness. "A survivor perseveres, that is, he doesn’t give up, no matter what. He won’t take the easy way out by feeling sorry for his situation, he will do something to change that situation. Every one of you sitting in here has made that decision to persevere by choosing to come to Sunburst."
A show of hands was asked for, asking the students to identify if they had someone in their life that had hurt them, that they haven't forgiven. Nearly every hand in the auditorium was raised. Clay challenged the students to take Louis' remarkable act of forgiveness as an example, and wipe the slate clean of their own grudges. Relaying the words that his grandfather left him with, he reiterated "Hating someone who has wronged you does not hurt them. It only hurts you. It builds up inside, and your hatred weighs your heart down to the point where you can no longer love others, or love yourself. When you let go of that, you release your burden and free yourself."
"The response was phenomenal. These young men and women needed to hear this message, and I could see that their hearts and minds were truly receptive. Having the privilege of knowing the stories of some of these students, it occurred to me that they had a tremendous opportunity to forgive," says Clay. "Seeing how my grandfather's story affects young people, and realizing my own ability to be his conduit after he has left this earth, it has become so clear to me that like my grandfather before me, serving youth is my life's mission."