MS survivor Montel Williams is helping people connect and thrive through storytelling
via Nick Cannon Admin / Flickr

Montel Williams is a man of many talents, he's the former host of TV's "The Montel Williams Show" which ran for 17 years, radio's "Montel Across America," and has acted on countless television shows.

He served in the U.S. Navy and Marines and was honorably discharged after 15 years of service.

Williams has also been a tireless advocate for veterans, people with multiple sclerosis (MS), and medicinal cannabis.


But his greatest talent may be his perseverance. In 1999 he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and has managed to maintain a busy career as a talk show host and advocate.

Now, he has teamed up with Novartis and the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America for its new campaign My MS Second Act. The goal of the program is to encourage people with MS to share their stories to help others face the disease with confidence, hope, and a resounding voice.

MS survivors can download the My MS Second Act digital storytelling tool kit for tips on how to best present their story, then post the final video on the Talk SPMS Facebook page.

Storytelling is a powerful tool to help people with MS learn how to live with a disease that can be erratic. It also allows people with MS to expand their perceptions of the disease and relate with other sufferers.

The stories also allows people to better understand the progress of the unpredictable disease.

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"Multiple sclerosis can be a very isolating disease, so the need to connect with others is especially critical for the MS community," said Amanda Montague, Vice President of Education and Healthcare Relations, MSAA.

"We encourage those living with MS to recognize their MS progression and use the My MS Second Act storytelling toolkit to share their stories, have more meaningful conversations with their healthcare providers and inspire others living with MS to do the same," Montague continued.

via Wikimedia Commons

Upworthy got the chance to speak with Williams about his personal journey with MS, the power that comes with sharing our own stories, and why he has hope for the future.

Upworthy: What were the first MS symptoms you experienced?

Montel Williams: I should have been diagnosed back in 1980 when I was a senior at the Naval Academy. I went blind in my left eye and experienced some other odd neurological blips like left-side weakness and some numbness spots in my body that couldn't be explained.

UP: It took nineteen years of enduring these symptoms before you were diagnosed in 1999. Was that due to the lack of MS research at the time?

MW: I think people still go through that now but not to the same extent. Back then, doctors thought it was a disease that primarily affected caucasian women of northern European descent, not African Americans.

In fact, if you go back and look at it, the only African-American person that made the news was Lola Falana who got diagnosed with MS and then, after her, Richard Pryor, but his diagnosis was incorrectly attributed to his drug use.

Now, you look at family lineage, I am biracial. my mother was half Caucasian, and her mother was from Scotland and Ireland. So, I kinda fit the profile. But back then no one possibly thought that an African-American male could be diagnosed with MS.

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UP: How would your life have been different if you were diagnosed back in 1980?

MW: I was fortunate that it was misdiagnosed because I literally would have been pulled off active duty. Back then, the military didn't allow you to be on active duty with MS. I probably wouldn't be the same person that I am today. Had the diagnosis come down in 1980, I would not have been commissioned as a naval officer. I wouldn't have had the background that led to starting my own talk show.

A diagnosis of MS in 1980 was entirely different that a diagnosis in 2020. In 1980, the only thing doctors would say is "Go home and die."

via Wikimedia Commons

UP: My MS Second Act is all about allowing people to share their stories. What's the best message one can receive after receiving an MS diagnosis?

MW: It's the fact you're not alone. If we go back into the past, this is a disease that people lost their jobs and families over. You went home and told your husband or wife you have MS and they'd walk out the door on you.

I've had the ability to not just exist with MS but I've been able to thrive with MS. There are so many more stories like mine out there that aren't talk show hosts or celebrities, but people who show they've been thriving since the day the doctor said those words, "You have MS."

Up: You've mentioned that people with MS have had to endure discrimination. What is that prejudice rooted in?

MW: It's really rooted in ignorance and I don't say that as an aspersion, I say it's a lack of knowledge. That's what so good about My MS Second Act, it's not just for the MS survivor. It's also for their family, caregivers, and physicians.

UP: When you were diagnosed did anyone share their MS story with you?

MW: Unfortunately, no. When we go back in time, in say 1999, the number of people who came forward and spoke about MS were very few and far between. If you look back to when Richard Pryor was diagnosed with MS they blamed it on his drug use. People were afraid of coming forward and being labeled a crackhead. "No. it's not that I'm a crackhead. It's a neurological disorder."

We're just now putting together programs that allow people to be proud can be proud and say, "I have MS, but MS won't have me."

UP: Are there any stories you've heard through My MS Second Act that have had a profound effect on you?

MW: Today, at our formal launching of the program, we had three MS survivors who shared their stories with an audience. They were profound in the fact that their diseases manifest in different ways but each one was hopeful about tomorrow. That's one of the most important things about My MS Second Act, it's based on hope.

Up: What gives you hope?

MW: The first day that I got diagnosed I realized that I have MS but I don't have to let MS have me. I'm the same person that walked in and walked out of the doctor's office. That person who walked into the office looked forward to tomorrow. I walked out of that office in 1999 and I still have hope for tomorrow.

I know that no matter what this disease throws at me, I can handle it. As long as I pay attention, gain as much knowledge as I can possibly get, which means listening to the stories of other people, and reading about the most recent information. Knowledge is king. Having more knowledge is what will set you free and help you maintain the course that you're on. I look at tomorrow is another opportunity to do something successful.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

Simon & Garfunkel's song "Bridge Over Troubled Water" has been covered by more than 50 different musical artists, from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley to Willie Nelson. It's a timeless classic that taps into the universal struggle of feeling down and the comfort of having someone to lift us up. It's beloved for its soothing melody and cathartic lyrics, and after a year of pandemic challenges, it's perhaps more poignant now than ever.

A few years a go, American singer-songwriter Yebba Smith shared a solo a capella version of a part of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," in which she just casually sits and sings it on a bed. It's an impressive rendition on its own, highlighting Yebba's soulful, effortless voice.

But British singer Jacob Collier recently added his own layered harmony tracks to it, taking the performance to a whole other level.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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