When I was younger, I had a stubborn speech impediment that made my R sounds come out as L’s. The problem persisted into middle school and I remember a theater instructor telling me that I would need to change my lines so that the audience wouldn’t laugh at me. While she may have thought she was looking out for me, she planted the first seeds of insecurity and shame around a challenge that I was trying hard to overcome. I developed systems that I thought would help. In reading class, when we would take turns reading aloud from a book, I would read a page ahead of the class so I could identify the paragraphs in which there weren't any R words and then raised my hand vigorously to read that paragraph. While that avoidance strategy worked most of the time, it was only pushing me closer to the sidelines of the life that I wanted to live and farther away from the person I wanted to be.
Throughout middle school, I worked diligently with my speech therapist to re-train my tongue to find a different way to make the R sound. It worked! Within a few years, I had not only trained myself how to make the R sound, I had learned that my struggle had made me a stronger person. While my adversity was relatively minimal during my adolescence, this experience planted a new seed. I became fascinated with stories of resilience and the capacity of the human potential.
For almost two decades, I have served as the board chairman of nonprofit No Barriers, an organization I co-founded with a mission that inspires me every day, to unleash the potential of the human spirit. We serve tens of thousands of people from all walks of life — wounded veterans, business executives, students, caretakers, people with disabilities, people facing discrimination, people struggling with grief, and many others.
Our primary method of working with people comes in the form of immersive experiences in which we share our educational framework through activities like hikes, retreats, concerts, and outdoor adventures. Recognizing that our in-person activities are only able to impact a small fraction of the millions of people that could potentially benefit from our work — most especially since the COVID-19 pandemic hit — we have created a suite of tools to help folks break through barriers in their daily lives, including an online learning platform, a weekly podcast, and most recently, a new book, What’s Within You, which I co-wrote over the past year.
No Barriers has been featured on The Today Show, NPR, and in The New York Times, in part, because the work we are doing is relevant to what people are desperately seeking in their lives. No Barriers operates at the intersection of two fundamental questions that have been at the heart of the human condition since the beginning of time: 1. What is my purpose? and 2. How can I overcome the barriers in my way? Through our work, we provide a roadmap to help people navigate the gap between our idealistic aspirations for a life of purpose and the realistic barriers that often get in the way.
Over the years, we have worked closely with researchers to help evaluate the impact of our program on our participants. What we have learned is that 95 percent of all No Barriers participants say that our programs changed their lives forever. We are especially excited to continue to teach people how to break through their challenges and live a driven, purposeful life, in an accessible, low-cost, and scalable way.
On a personal level, what has fueled my own journey has been my desire to move closer to my purpose. Throughout all of my life, I have been driven by a message I learned from my parents and later at Notre Dame, to be “a force for good” in my family, my relationships, and my work. Since I graduated in 1995 with a double major in Italian literature and economics, I have sought to weave the message into both my work relationships and the marketing campaigns I create for global organizations like U.S. Soccer, the Kellogg Company, Snap-on Tools, and the Peace Corps.
In my work with No Barriers, I have had the opportunity to climb mountains with world-famous barrier-breakers like co-founder Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to summit Mt. Everest, and collaborate on projects with Mandy Harvey, the deaf singer-songwriter who captivated the nation by earning the golden buzzer on America’s Got Talent. What is most rewarding to me is to be a part of the No Barriers community where we drop our defenses at the door and acknowledge the pain, the scars, and the fear that each of us carries; and tell ourselves and each other “we got this” as we reach toward our next goal. It is through our process that we not only move closer to achieving our vision, but also to the “rope team” of friends who have supported, guided us, prayed for us, and willed us forward on the journey.
All of us face challenges and all of us need tools, inspiration, and community to overcome these very real barriers in our lives. And as hard as this is to believe, most of us are never taught what the tools are, nor are we equipped to use these tools. Whether it be next month or next year or next decade, it is my hope that our No Barriers organization can serve as a useful resource for you or someone you love. Like the thousands of participants we serve every year, I hope you’ll come to discover the guiding principle of our organization: “What’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way”
I think back to middle school and I remember a day when I had been teased by some classmates for my R. My speech therapist, Mrs. Bork, was outraged and declared, “This is unacceptable. No one in this school will ever make fun of you again.” What Mrs. Bork gave me that day was the affirmation that not only do my feelings matter, but they are worth fighting for. One year later, I was voted to give a speech at graduation.
I left all the R’s in.
Tom Lillig '95 is the Board Chairman of No Barriers USA and co-author of What’s Within You: Your Roadmap to Living Life with No Barriers (KenilworthLore Publishing) which launches on September 15. The book, already an e-book bestseller, has received early praise from Dr. Jane Goodall and ABC journalist Bob Woodruff, as well as Notre Dame legends Lou Holtz and Rudy Ruettiger. Tom runs the Chicago office of Stone Ward, a creative agency dedicated to building good.
Top photo credit: Marcus Norman