The Courage to Speak

Sarah Burcaw Yunusov

When Sarah Burcaw Yunusov first walked into Maryanna Richardson’s COM 231 public speaking class in 2007, she was both intimidated and scared.

“I’d never had a positive experience before with public speaking,” Sarah says. “The very first day of class, Maryanna came in and was the liveliest, most excited and personable instructor I’d ever had! I realized that the public speaking experience might actually be pretty cool, because her energy was contagious.”

“I not only try to teach my students how to write and give speeches, but also try to build confidence along the way,” says Maryanna, who has been an instructor at the college for 17 years. “Encouragement and motivation are so important.”

Ten years later, Sarah is using the lessons she learned and courage she gained in the class as a foundation for the successful nonprofit she co-founded with her cousin, Shane Burcaw, in 2012, called Laughing At My Nightmare. Shane has a severe physical disability – muscular dystrophy – that limits him in what he can do. The two travel the country together, giving motivational speeches to large church groups, schools and businesses about Shane’s story of keeping a positive outlook on life, despite the cards it might deal you.

“When we started doing public speaking, we didn’t know if we would succeed,” Sarah says. “Shane didn’t have any experience in it, and I’d just had the class at Forsyth Tech. We initially were doing two speeches a month, for free.”

Then word started to get out: the duo had a life-changing message about how a positive mindset will help you live a better life.

“We started to get requests from all over the country,” Sarah says. “Our nonprofit grew by leaps and bounds. By August of 2015, we were getting five requests a day from groups wanting to hear our story. It’s now our full-time job.”

“It’s all about being completely genuine and authentic, while teaching about how being positive and having a sense of humor can help you overcome anything you go through,” Sarah explains. “We want to connect with others. We’re all in the same boat – everyone is fighting some sort of battle – and we can overcome our struggles if we look at life from a different perspective.”

The team’s message is gaining a huge following. They’ve shared their story with groups at Walt Disney World, Harvard University and West Point Military Academy. The nonprofit has also been able to provide more than $60,000 in equipment grants to individuals living with muscular dystrophy. It’s an effort Sarah says wouldn’t have been possible without their public speaking program.

“I still go back to the first speech I gave in Maryanna’s class,” Sarah recalls. “I remember going up there and she said, ‘that was really good.’ That always sticks out in my mind to this day. No one is perfect, but you get through it and do the best you can and improve. Positive reinforcement made all the difference in the first project.”

It’s the reason Sarah recently reached out to Maryanna – a decade later – to thank her for the confidence she needed to succeed.

“I’m so proud of her, and it makes my heart so happy,” Maryanna says. “It’s incredibly heartwarming, and I’m blessed to be a part of her journey.”

Sarah Burcaw Yunusov
(Images courtesy of Carlo Acerra and Fire Rock Productions)