Recently, I spoke to a group of high school students in a summer program. One of the teacher was a remarkable young college student who wishes to remain anonymous. His life story is so compelling that I asked him to share it with all of you.
The Letter of Life:
I met Mr. Cuellar through some of his volunteer efforts at a Houston non-profit organization. He gave a presentation to our high school students in the summer program. We had had many presentations in the past few weeks and I thought Mr. Cuellar would simply be another visit on the list. What I didn’t know before his visit, is that what he would say and the man that would stand before me would leave and everlasting impact on myself and everyone in attendance. His words compelled me to share my unfinished story of success to reach others as he does every time he speaks. His words were those of encouragement and hope for the many dreams we all held in our hearts. His lessons of self-perception, believing in yourself, and embracing your past without regrets made it easier for me to understand the importance of reaching people through the story of my life.
Mr. Cuellar explained about his childhood and how helpful his parents were throughout his life. I did not have the same kind of support or advice as he was blessed with as a child. Mr. Cuellar had two parents who cared and watched out for him. I’ve been on my own most of my life. My father has been in out of my life (either voluntarily or involuntarily) and my mom was too young and immature to take care of her kids at times. Until the age of ten, in Colorado, either my older sister or my grandma took care of me. I grew up in one of the worst neighborhoods in Denver and ran the streets with my older cousins at a very young age. I had dreams to never leave the barrio and all I ever wanted to be was the leader of a gang ,like my father and cousins, or locked up, like my dad was at the time. These were my dreams, this is all I knew. Those were my role models. I was fortunate to have been raised by my grandma on my mom’s side, who was very religious, and remain close to my grandpa on my dad’s side, who devoted his life to community service and cleaning up the neighborhood. My heart was in that neighborhood and I never had thoughts about college or getting out. I saw and did a lot of things before the age of ten that nobody should ever do. I was falling into the trap of the streets. I didn’t mind or realize this because I didn’t know anything better.
At the age of ten my mom’s job transferred her, my little brother, and I to Missouri. It was the best thing to ever happen to me. My sister decided to stay in Colorado and planned to stay there for her high school years. My dad got clean and ended coming to Missouri. They were good for a while and I got to see what it was like to have a real family. Then, after a few months, like everything they had done in the past, they let us down. Things went back to the way they were before. My mom went along with whatever my dad did or said and my dad was disappearing for days/months. The only difference was that this time my little brother and I didn’t have refuge in family. We were over eight hundred miles away from the nearest family member. We were all alone and were victims of our parents’ problems. We never had parents to help us with decisions or homework. We guided ourselves and made our own way.
Around this time is when I began to excel in school and sports. I hoped my brother would follow my example as I tried to be the best brother/father possible. I tried to fill the void of not having a stable family with these things which didn’t fail me at all. My brother and I became very close and my sister decided to move to Missouri to be with us. We are very close and have always been there for each other.
As we got older the situation got worse. We never complained, and if you were looking from the outside in, you would never think anything was wrong. All people would know is that my dad would show up to my ballgames drunk and get kicked out of most. My coaches had to pick me up for every practice and game. But other than that people didn’t see or hear much. We were all good kids and did well in school. When my sister was seventeen she had a baby. Soon after she moved out to raise her child, finish school, and make a way for herself away from the family. She is the strongest woman I have ever known and is my hero. It got rough from there for my brother and me because she was not around, although we helped her out a lot. We continued to do our own thing with success, never letting people see our weakness or that we were dying inside.
The years passed and I got accepted to one of the most prestigious high schools in Missouri. It was a private school with a high tuition. Upon looking into the school I knew I would never be able to pay the going rate. Truth is, I got recruited to play sports there, like all the other high schools, and would not have to pay a dime of the several thousand dollar tuition. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity and made the most of it. Coaches from my younger days helped with the academic/athletic/need-based scholarship and even my father when he was sober. Alumni from the school took over from there and were excited to have a smart, athletic Latino in their school.
I did well there being top three in my class and starting on the varsity basketball team. I took pride in the fact that my work ethic was unmatched. I would never let anyone outwork me. People thought I was crazy, but they didn’t know I had huge chip on my shoulder. I had come from nothing to being in a school with a bunch of elitist white kids who had had everything handed to them their whole lives. I had to prove myself over and over again. I started on the varsity football as a sophomore and began to enjoy it more than basketball. I was working three days a week to provide for my little brother whatever he wanted. I did every community service opportunity I heard of. Working, studying, caring for my brother and the community, and playing sports are what made my glass full (as Mr. Cuellar would put it). I didn’t know any other way than to leave the house before 6 AM and not return until after 10 PM. I was determined not to end up back in the neighborhood that I once hoped never to leave. I would not allow my brother to fall into the trap either.
All the while, my life at home was deteriorating. I cannot really explain the feeling of trying to be perfect in order to be loved more than the things people chose in their lives. This is what I was doing and I was failing greatly: or so I felt. I feel that this is where Mr. Cuellar’s life and mine parallel in making our own decisions and allowing ourselves to fail or succeed. When I turned seventeen I decided to move out of my house. The environment was not productive for where I was headed and I wanted to get my brother away from it. We had been on our own for a while in a lot of ways, so leaving wasn’t very hard. As it turns out, I was under eighteen and therefore could not legally take my twelve year old brother. He was forced back into the house with my parents where he assured me he would be fine. From there I made my own way. I lived on the streets, in my car, with my sister and with friends. I was homeless but a lot of people opened their doors to me, whether knowingly or not. I can recall, asking friends if I could come over and study late and then intentionally falling asleep on their couch just so I could have somewhere comfortable to stay. I lived with families for weeks then would just disappear so I wasn’t a burden on them. I continued to work, play sports, do community service and go on my Mission Trips to Mexico. I was very busy but very unhappy and depressed. I went through some of the best and worst times of my life in this two year period.
The summer going into my senior year is when it all fell apart. My family had disowned me and said I couldn’t see my brother. I kept getting injured and thought my senior football year which would determine my future had ended before it started, and I was on my own living in my car. I felt I had no where to turn and I had lost faith in the Lord and myself. It was my eighteenth birthday and I had been in my car for almost forty-eight hours. I was suicidal and ready to end it all. I felt I had nothing to live for and had written to the people I cared about most to explain my actions. I knew where it would happen, I had it all planned out. The electric pole, the speeding car, the rain would all play their role in ending my life. I decided to do it on midnight of my birthday. I hadn’t accepted calls from anyone on my cell phone in two days and didn’t plan on it either. Honestly, fifteen minutes before midnight I got a call from a private number. None of the numbers had been private and I decided this was the last call I would ever take. I answered the phone, in tears to an unfamiliar voice. A voice I didn’t recognize but was speaking Spanish. The voice said “Oye. Oye happy birthday.” It was Judith, a girl from Mexico who I had spent most of my time with on my previous Mission Trip. I said thank you and she heard the pain in my voice. She is a wonderful girl and knew she had to figure out what was wrong with me. She continued to say over and over again that the people on the mission had been thinking about me and they loved me. She loved me like a best friend and would do anything for me. She said she knew I had the biggest heart she had ever seen. Those words saved my life. Judith and the great Lord saved my life that night. I couldn’t thank her enough for what she did. She is my angel sent from heaven to save me.
From there I didn’t look back and was relentless in my new life. God had given me a second chance and I would not fail Him this time. My outlook on life was completely different because I had been at the end of the road. There was no where to go but the right way and I felt I was here for a reason. That is when I really began my pursuit to help and educate others. I had done things before to be there for underprivileged young people but it was nothing like I began at that time. I felt that people could look at me and my story and see a path for success through all the trials and tribulations. I became devoted to affecting as many young minds as possible.
In 2006 I committed to one of the finest Ivy League institutions to play football. It was a dream come true. I never imagined as a young boy even going to college because nobody in my family really did that. But now I was headed to the Ivy League and was determined to continue my pursuit of helping people. Now I would have a different platform and be meeting a different group of people which I could change their mindset. Whether it was the elitist who saw no reason to give back or the boy who grew up poor and felt that he would never get out, I was determined to change those ways of thinking. I began with getting involved with a number of tutoring programs at my college and began to head one for athletes at one of the worst public high schools in the state. We have a lot of work to do there and I will continue my work with them.
So like Mr. Cuellar, I had big dreams, a positive mind, and a strong work ethic. I have used this to get me to where I am today and where I want to be. In the past year and a half I have began to resolve issues with my parents and they are cleaning up there act although I am still on my own and do not receive financial support from them.
Being here in Houston and working with these kids is also like a dream come true. I am learning a lot from them and I hope they are learning a lot from the stories I have offered them about myself. I hope to continue in education or something in community outreach. My dream is to go to law school and someday be CEO of my own non-profit organization. I hope that it is similar to the non-profit I am currently working for but also reaching youth through athletics and education. I know that these dreams can materialize with continuing hard work and meeting people from all over the country who can help me in the future.
Looking back it seems like an unbelievable story. But even in doing so, like I always have felt as a child, I realize there are people out there who have it worse. This is why I never complained about my situation and only tried to take steps to improve it. There have been many times when I could have given up like I planned to that rainy night, but I didn’t for a reason. I now understand the purpose of my strength through these hardships. There are a lot of people who love me and want to see me succeed. I don’t regret anything that has ever happened in my life because if it didn’t happen then I might not be in the same position I am today of being able to touch people through my life. I live by a quote: “For God to use a man greatly, he must first wound him deeply.” I have lived a life that is meant to inspire others to overcome obstacles in their lives. Always know that there are people out there who overcome unconquerable odds and end up on the top of the world. You must first make a personal decision to better your life with inner strength and believing in yourself. With these two things anything is possible.
I thank Mr. Cuellar for instilling these words into my students with his story of success. I also thank him for giving me giving me the opportunity to reach others through my story.