9 years ago I met a young kid named Carl Jeune. You may not know this, but it was in fact this 12 year old Haitian child that was the catalyst for my decision to travel to Haiti. Today Carl turns 21. I want to take this opportunity to tell you the story of a child that came from nothing and turned his life around to make it into everything. Happy Birthday Carl!
I was a senior at the University of Miami. The year was 2003. I found a position as a mentor for 10 inner-city youth in the heart of Miami. Carl was one of my mentees. Over the course of that year I learned a lot about Carl. He left Haiti for the United States when he was 4 years old, living in several other states before ending up in Florida. He was one of 5 siblings, three older and one younger. He had just begun his 7th grade year, and was a child eager to learn, to engage the world, to experience life outside the streets of his neighborhood. Unfortunately, life was not always kind to Carl. There were times in elementary school that he had one school uniform, which he wore five days in a row, waiting until Saturday to have it washed. Even during the time I knew Carl from middle school and high school there were days that he and his family would go without food, sometimes relying on acquiring goods from the local food bank, when there was transportation to get there. These situations were not due to lack of trying or effort on his parents’ part. His mom and dad, immigrants from Haiti to the United States, often worked two jobs each, trying to make ends meet for their children. Here they had sacrificed their lives in Haiti to bring their children to the United States, only to be floundering in a country that was supposed to be the land of opportunity.
After one year of mentoring Carl I moved to Cambridge for a year to attend Harvard. We didn’t talk much that year. When I returned to Miami in 2005, we reconnected, only for me to find that he was struggling during his freshman year of high school. That is when I presented him and his family with an option. In order to improve his grades, and to attend a better high school, he could live with me in Miami Springs and attend a high school that would hopefully provide him with a substantially better education than his current environment. Over the next 4 years Carl lived with me, working on academics, playing sports, and trying to find a foothold to become successful. You are sadly mistaken if you think this process was easy. In fact, it was a tough 4 years for me, and definitely a difficult time for Carl. There were times when he became fed up with me, and I became fed up with him, so he would return to his house in Little Haiti. I learned that raising a teenager is extremely difficult, and he learned that just because you live in a nice house and have food every day, life still isn’t easy. I remember the time he was continually late home for school, and I smashed his cell phone to the ground, causing it to explode into my pool (thanks Ms. Gonzalez for this parenting tip): yea, I regret it. And I remember the time he lied to me about having friends over to swim in my pool without telling me (thanks neighbors for letting me know!). Through this process though, we worked it out. He graduated with a good GPA, played on the football and track team, had a good set of friends. And I learned a heck of a lot about life.
Where is Carl now, as he turns 21? On his own (literally, I had no idea), Carl earned a football scholarship to attend St. Vincents College in Latrobe, PA. He is currently in the spring semester of his sophomore year. He has a full load of classes, plays for the football team, and holds down 1-2 jobs a semester. Add on top of that just last year he earned his citizenship in the United States. A poor immigrant arriving in the United States at the age of 4 is now a college student and American Citizen at 21. If that isn’t the definition of the American Dream, then I don’t know what is.
My goal has always been for Carl to return to Haiti so that he can help other children in his home country obtain the same opportunity that he had. Thus, I went first in 2008, to model for him that Haiti is a safe country to visit, and that despite people telling him not to go, that he actually has a responsibility to return. It is for that reason that I first came to Haiti, and the rest is history. One final thought I want to make clear. While it may seem that I was the one that helped Carl to have these opportunities in life, it is in fact the opposite. I learned more from Carl, from his motivation and determination in life, from his positive attitude and never-give up mentality, than I ever taught or gave to him. Thank you Carl for teaching me life lessons that will help me continue to shape the lives of children in Haiti, to give them a chance to succeed in life. And of course, Happy Birthday!