“I made it up the stairs without tripping,” the 50-year-old man says jokingly, as he fumbles around with his microphone. His eyes scan across the Wake Forest University Wait Chapel building, filled with different faces, of different ages. He wears a pair of camo pants and a gray T-shirt that’s tight enough to display how fit he is — for a man his age. 

Above and just behind the stage, a window emits a rouge-red light, outlining the large rows of pipes that connect to a looming musical instrument — an organ.

Away from the window, four chandeliers hang down from the ceiling — two in the front on either side of the theater and another two in the back, hovering just above the audience.

“The theme for the day is ‘Devising the Past,’” he says to the crowd. “And my past was horrible. And I’m just going dive right in.

“I was born in a little town called Toledo, Ohio,” he continues. “My father was born in Palestine, Muslim, and my mother was born in Poland, a Jew. And both of them had pretty awful childhoods.” 

He clears his throat. 

“They were not equipped to be parents,” he says, suddenly becoming serious. “The things that happened to me, as a child should never happen to any child. There was a lot of violence, there was incest, there was neglect, and it was a really bad childhood.” He takes a deep breath. And then, painful as it is to recall, he tells his story.

Khalil Rafati is a speaker, author, and health and wellness entrepreneur. He currently owns Malibu Beach Yoga and Sun Life Organics. He is also the founder of Riviera Recovery, a transitional living facility for drug addicts and alcoholics. A former heroin and cocaine addict himself; he speaks to audiences about his journey from a drug user to the healthy and successful man he is today.

On Feb. 22, TEDx comes to Wake Forest University. The lecture series created in 1984 by Richard Saul Wurman, flies under the flag of “Ideas worth spreading.” Originally the program focused primarily on technology and design, but since then has broadened its horizons to include lectures ranging from the academic to the cultural, the scientific and political.

The event features eight speakers that discuss their life stories with students and off-campus guests. The conference itself centers around people who had to change their perspectives on life in order to thrive and find their true purpose. 

Rafati turns to the TV monitor behind him and engages the projector to display an image of a very thin and sickly-looking man, with awful, bleached-blonde hair. He looks like his life is wasting away, as audience members gave upon his very visible, hollowed out cheeks.

Of course, it’s him.

Rafati, then and now (photo from Sun Life Organics website)

“At 33 years old, a high school dropout, convicted felon — really with a track record that could have landed me in the hall of fame of all-time losers and no hope whatsoever,” Rafati says. 

Thirty minutes or so before Rafati, another speaker took to the stage to share her shifting outlook on life. Making her way over to her guitar, sound emitting from her black heeled boots as she strode, was musician Sarah Deshew. 

“So,” she started, “Here’s the thing about revision: it happens whether we like it or not. But when we take an active part in our revising, when we shed the mantle, the insecurity around which everybody else’s opinions matter, about how our revision should look. The most beautiful surprises wait.”

Picking up the guitar, Deshew positioned her right hand around the neck of the instrument as the fingers of her left brushed over the thin strings. A country tune diffused into the air.

Singer and Song-writer Sarah Deshew plays the guitar (Photo by Devin Purgason.)

“Come on in,” Deshew sang softly, “Sit with me/ whisper your stories/ whatever it is that you can’t keep in/ what treasures you have to tell/raise your hand if you understand…”

The sandy blonde-haired woman’s voice rang out the room. Eventually the music drifted away as the song slowly came to an end.

For more information, check out the TEDx Wake Forest University website

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