If hanging on to the axel (between the back wheels of a tractor-trailer) for a ride across the border from Toronto, Canada to New York and arriving covered in ashes and dust takes your mind to the most gruesome adventure movie, meet Rene Godefroy, whom life left no choice in his quest to escape poverty.
Born to a single parent in an isolated impoverished village in Haiti, Rene beat the odds of survival, suffering through malnourishment, dysentery and cholera as a baby to become a man whose accomplishments are admirable, if not enviable.
At seven years old he rejoined his mother who had left him to find work in the city. His visions of a better life, however; were dashed when he realized that he was removed from an existence of fanning flies from his face while sitting on the dirt floor of his tiny abode, to living in a basement infested with rats and roaches where he had no choice but to sleep on the floor.
His ascension to becoming a nationally known and sought-after motivational speaker in America has inspired many. He has shared the stage with powerhouse speakers such as Zig Ziggler and Dr. Wayne Dyer, among others. AT&T, AFLAC, Charles Schwab and Coca Cola are just a few of the large corporations that have used his deep insight and inspiration for staff training and motivation.
I spoke with Rene in an effort to probe the mind of this very interesting man.
You made the trip to America at age 21. The most important part of that trip for me is that little commute from Canada to New York. How long did that trip take and if you can, walk us through your deepest thoughts and fears during those moments of that journey?
That trip was not a matter of time, that trip was eternity. Think about Albert Einstein and the law of relativity. If someone holds your hand on a hot stove for a few seconds it seems like eternity, yet if you go to the airport to meet someone that you are absolutely in love with time moves more slowly. In reality I was there for about three hours or so because it was at the point when we were going to cross the border that the truck driver asked me to hide myself. Then after we crossed the border, I was able to go back up front and sit with him. I was so dirty. I was covered in dust and ashes and smoke.
Three hours is long enough, lodged under a moving vehicle, a tractor-trailer no less, holding on to what I assume must have been the axel.
Yes. I went to Montreal with a theatre company as I was a part of a play but I had dreams of coming to America, because as a poor kid in Haiti, America was for me the Promised Land. I never thought or imagined that there was poverty anywhere in America. I did go to immigration to get my visa but they turned me down. I just knew I had to do whatever it was to get to America.
How long did it take you to settle in America and what was your biggest challenge making that transition from your country to America?
English. I did not speak a word in English so that was my Mount Everest that I had to climb. It sounded to me like people speaking gibberish. Sometimes I wanted to say something but I didn’t know what to say or how to say it. I think people assumed that I wasn’t intelligent because I couldn’t speak English. People actually teased me and laughed at me when I tried to speak. Little did they know that I came to this country with gifts inside of me to offer, but just couldn’t express myself at the time.
When I look at you as a nationally renowned speaker now, I can hardly imagine you being a little boy coming from a level of poverty where you had to be fanning flies from your face. This conjures up pictures of famine stricken areas in Biafra, which is now Ethiopia of course. Have you disconnected with that little boy that you were or does he continue to live within you?
I never got disconnected with the little boy for the reason I believe that God took me out of the little village in Haiti so that I could reach out to that very same village. I remember going to Haiti and being on national television. After the show I was at my village and a woman came to me out of breath. She had found a way to pay for transportation to come to my village to see me. She told me that she had something very important to share with me. She said six months ago her friend committed suicide. She could not afford to continue her education, and due to poverty and lack of hope she took her life. She told me that as I was on television she was thinking of taking her life as well. She expressed to me that had I been there six months ago her friend would be alive today. So to answer your question, that little boy lives on in me and has now become the light at the end of the tunnel for those living in a dark place in their life.
Yes. And given the fact that your circumstances are by no means unique but exist all over the world, you are now able to speak to people all over the world who share those same humble circumstances. But let me ask you this, because I know that your father abandoned you before birth. Does that reflection make you bitter and were you ever able to meet him?
I was eventually able to meet him at the age of ten or eleven years old. He lived in a village that was very far from me. He was in the trucking business. Back then he had two trucks so I assumed he was alright, but he had kids all over so I realized that I was just a number. It was a man who helped me to find my father. He was kind enough to allow me to stay at his house for a night and then we went about finding my father the next morning. My father’s wife told me that he wasn’t home and I remember going back and my father meeting me in the doorway. He told me that he was busy traveling and is not often at home. He did not even invite me into his home. He basically told me that he did not want to be bothered with me. Despite this, I do not have one morsel of bitterness for my father. I know I got great traits from my father. He was an entrepreneur at heart and I think despite all, he was a good person. I am, as a result of my father donating the sperm to my mother. If he were still alive I would completely embrace him.
We shouldn’t curse the journey; we can’t curse the situation that we are in because I believe that being fatherless was part of my journey. It was part of what I had to go through to be who I am.
Here is an example of how life played out for me. The very play that took me to Montreal was a play where my character was a fatherless child. I had to speak to ‘the man’ about his lack of responsibility. We did this play to an audience of a dozen people or so. The rest of the cast was discouraged but I wasn’t. Little did I know that one of the men sitting in the front row was the director of a big theatre company and this was a form of auditioning for me.
What triggered your interest in public speaking?
I was a doorman at a hotel in Atlanta for fourteen years. I was a little lost. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I went to Anthony Robbins ‘Unleash the Power’ four-day workshop in Orlando so I started writing my goals on what I wanted to do. In the meantime I was still working at the hotel and meeting speakers as they came to speak at the hotel and I began to inquire. I started making a note of the personal development books in these cars as I was parking them at the hotel and would not only read those books, I studied them. I also began to listen to conversations and that was easy to do because as a doorman, I had a “monkey suit” on and again people assumed that I did not know much. People felt at liberty to speak to me precisely because they did not think much of me, not knowing that I was actually pulling information, just like you are doing now. I started telling these people like Zig Ziglar and others that I wanted to be a motivational speaker. I started to speak into existence that which I wanted. I actually told them that one day I will share the stage with you.
Was your first speaking engagement nerve racking or did you feel right at home with your audience?
My first speaking engagement was beyond nerve racking. It was for a Toast Masters International, that’s what you call the icebreaker. I froze on stage. I literally forgot my name and where I was from.
You have positively impacted the life of many through inspiration and empowerment but on a personal level, people who have suffered dire hardship are either very guarded with their success or they seek to take others with them. What are your thoughts on this?
I have a saying that when all your wanting is to uplift and edify others, then all your wants beg to come to you. My mission in life is to edify, uplift and to inspire but I have a charity company here in America and in Haiti. I am so much of a giver that people take advantage of it. I realize that when I coach people for free they don’t take it seriously; there is no value to it. They don’t take the actions necessary. The things that I acquire don’t mean much for me. Transforming somebody’s life is far more meaningful. I spend a month or two in Haiti at a time just giving back. I remember spending twelve thousand dollars for a weekend seminar to see one man and it’s not that I had the money. I had to take a second [mortgage] on my house but that’s how important that was for me. I didn’t have it, I was still a doorman but this meant a lot for my ambition and what I wanted to achieve. Today I am giving it to people free and they don’t really appreciate it.
But to answer your question, I believe in giving because it’s like blood. If you don’t circulate the money, it you don’t circulate the knowledge, it’s like blood clot.
I was actually thinking of charities when I mentioned giving. People have been blessed with gifts, when I say gifts I mean the ability to make their way in life and avail themselves of opportunities that are out there. But it is excellent to say the least of the extreme measures you took to fulfill your life’s ambition.
I have friends who are Republicans who discourage me from giving. They believe that in giving you make people poor. My thoughts are, what good is there in having all this money, you are a rich man, living this way and you can’t take it with you while on the other hand there are people on the other side that are literally eating out of trash cans.
But this money is not being doled out to individuals either. I would imagine that it is being filtered into some kind of organized entity that will see to it that it is properly distributed. Some of these would have, for example, a food line going, or going to students that you might have given scholarships. Is it being properly channeled or is it just being doled out to individuals?
It’s being properly channeled. But here is the thing. I go to my village and see people wake up every day and not doing anything. I will give them a couple of dollars but I realize that everything in their head is nothing but limitations and frustration. They don’t see what they have. They don’t understand that they can educate themselves like I did. I didn’t go to college but I am like a wiz kid with the Internet. I have been studying Internet marketing since ’98. I took it upon myself to educate myself. So yes, I love to feed the people but there is something that’s hurting me inside because I realize that once they get that meal there is nothing else. I am now beginning to challenge them and to help them see that success is nothing but a mindset. The questions that we ask ourselves determine the direction that we go in life.
Let me share something with you. This might not be the answer but it was truly an eye opener for me. I was watching a documentary on television about different individuals giving back to their community. One female doctor was from the same community in Brooklyn where she was working. Her way of giving was through a summer program each year. A very important part of that program was the exposure she gave to these teenagers. I was startled when, through that program I realized that there were children in Brooklyn who didn’t know Manhattan and didn’t know anything about the Twin Towers until 9/11. Children cannot see outside of the scope of their surroundings, they need to be exposed to a quality of life that is going to propel them to move beyond themselves into something better.
Another man was teaching Chess and the walls of his offices were covered with letters of scholarship for students who had passed through that program. What they found was that students used the same degree of focus and attention and gave careful consideration to the end result of each move before making decisions and this spilled over in their way of life. The end result was that those children were higher achievers.
That’s very interesting. I just know that there is something that I am supposed to do for people who are living desperate lives.
Your books “No Condition is Permanent” and “Kick Your Excuses Goodbye” were huge sellers. Are you working on any other at this time?
I am working on another book called “Change is a Gift.” This book will probably come out six to seven months from now.
Have you ever asked why you? Is there some deeper life lesson wrapped up in your experience that you are aware of?
Yes, I have asked and the answer I got was; it was meant to be. Speaking chose me, I did not choose it. I know from statistics that I am not even supposed to be alive today. I was a janitor in Miami at 163rd Mall while washing cars in the streets. I believe that I was chosen because I am supposed to go back and reach out to the masses in Haiti.
Haiti was devastated with the earthquake in January 2010. How is the rebuilding process going and what do you think the future holds for your country?
The rebuilding process is ridiculously slow because there is not much accountability among the leaders in Haiti. There is money there but everyone just seems to want to get their hands on it. This happens all over. I have the audacity to believe that Haiti is going to bounce back in a remarkable way. I don’t believe that all the solution will come from the outside world. I believe that we have to find the solution within the country. The people of Haiti will need to come to a consensus and cooperation on how to rebuild the country. They can get all the help they want but if people are not in line to receive; if people are not buying in, it’s not going to happen. I look at it as a lesson that God is teaching the people of Haiti. I do what I can and I pray. I realize that to the world I am one, but to one I can be the world.
You have probably answered my last question because you have your non-profit organization here in the US, your charity organization in Haiti, added to the fact that you are presently writing another book and then you have your speaking engagements and motivational workshops; there is hardly room for anything else. Do you have any other interest?
I go to church, I do salsa, I am a runner, so I run three or four times a week, and then between time I devour information. I consume information. I am not addicted to anything so I don’t have an obsession for anything. I go to Vegas to speak and you know they say, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” I am not drawn into that. I bring my money back home with me because I don’t gamble my money. I work too hard for it.
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