Skip to main content

Sandy Journal

“Giving to her made me feel clean” - Motivational speaker tells Alta students they can be happy—by giving things away

Jan 29, 2019 11:16AM ● By Julie Slama

Life coach and motivational speaker Todd Sylvester tells students, “Everything you think you need, you already have it.” (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Todd Sylvester stood in front of Alta High’s students and admitted, “There was a time I didn’t want to be alive.”

That captured the attention of slouching teens right before the winter break, which Alta High Principal Brian McGill had hoped for when he brought in the Brighton High graduate turned life coach and motivational speaker to share his story of discovery to lead an inspired life.

“When I was in seventh grade, I looked funny and thought I’d never have a girlfriend,” Sylvester said. “I felt like people always were talking behind my back and that negative voice kept increasing.”

Although he had hopes of playing professional basketball, Sylvester fell into the wrong crowd and tried marijuana.

“I was told it would help and I fell in love with it,” he said.

Fast forward to high school where Sylvester did make the Brighton High team, leading the stat board in every category two of his three years.

“I was an alcoholic, a drug addict and had suicidal thoughts, but I was still playing ball. I was known as a partier and that was my validation. A week after the season, I had a full-ride scholarship to play basketball and go to college,” he said.

However, halfway into the summer practices, the college coach told him he was pathetic and had “walk-ons that want the scholarship and to play more than you.”

“Here I was, having shot baskets for two hours every day since sixth grade and I had my scholarship stripped away. The thought of suicide became more so. A friend reached out and that helped me reset my course. Never underestimate the power of a friend,” Sylvester told the students. 

Fast forward again to his return to Sandy, where he was driving past a lemonade stand on Newcastle Drive.

“I saw a seventh-grade girl selling lemonade on a sunny Saturday,” he said. “I stopped and decided to give her the change I had in my car. I had her hold out her hands and I gave her nine scoops of change. She ran in the house and was crying so hard. It really hit me. Before I didn’t care about anything but me. The drugs had cheated and manipulated me. I felt like I finally had made a difference in someone’s life. The next Saturday, I returned and the next Saturday and every Saturday for two and one-half months. Giving to her made me feel clean and that I was helping someone,” he said.

That was 29 years ago and he said those actions became a life-changer for him.

“I learned then that there is nothing wrong with you and everything you think you need, you already have it,” Sylvester said. “And if you want to be happy, give it away. Even if you are sad or depressed, you get back happiness when you give it to someone else. It’s so simple, but many of us don’t get it.”

Sylvester said he reaches out to students from his alma mater to high schools around the Salt Lake Valley and even to students in detention and in the prison.

“Nobody has told them that the greatest truth is that there is nothing wrong with you. I’ve seen 70 youth in orange jumpsuits in tears with that realization. Everything they need, they already have,” he said.

Sylvester said he hopes his message changes the culture and students can stop listening to their own negativity and seeing problems being so big. That realization, he said, may help students realize they are OK.

“As a coach, I’m doing what my friend, Rich Saunders, did for me — reaching out at a critical time to help them realize it’s not insurmountable,” he said, adding that Saunders is “blown away” that Sylvester made his career out of the help he gave as a friend.

And the girl — Lindy Davis — selling lemonade? She first bought a trampoline with his handfuls of change and now is his publicist for his speaking engagements, reminding him how helping someone can make an impact, he said. 

And basketball? He plays “cutthroat with my son and son-in-law and shoot around in the side yard,” but he never played organized ball after he red-shirted at Dixie State College.

“I would not have known what I know today if it hadn’t been for the coach who cut me or for the friend who reached out. It turned my life around and I hope I can get that message to students today,” he said.

Junior Rachel Medina said his talk motivated her to connect more with others through kindness.

“It’s an important time to be selfless and have the human connectiveness,” she said. “I want to remind them to be happy and focus on what he said.”

Classmate Elizabeth Bachman said that by being positive and joyous, it may make a positive impact on the Alta community.

“Just by showing people you love them or saying hi may just make someone’s day in a way you don’t know,” she said.