My Story


 I was 14 years old. My dad was a cab driver. My mom was a nurse’s aide. We were blessed but we were poor. My mom, who had six kids, gave us all that she could but not enough to keep the bullies away. I was convinced that my mom could not afford to get me things that I wanted in order to fit in. By the summer of the seventh grade I had a job.


              I worked my part-time job at Star Market the night before. I argued with my mom shouting back and forth in Haitian Creole while rolling out of bed, and with the school security guard blocking the metal detector entrance because I was an hour late to school. I snuck inside. I laid my head down on the desk for a second and I fell asleep. When I awoke, everyone in the room had disappeared. Chairs? Gone! I had on so many layers. I was wearing old shoes with torn soles. I had my book bag but no books inside, only thick clothes and a canister of deodorant. To my left was my high school transcript. I had all F’s, repeated the tenth grade twice, and dropped out of school. I was now a high school dropout and homeless.


               In America, more than 40% of food is thrown away. Between the hours of 5 am to midnight, someone else’s french fries or watered-down soda from a trash can nourished my feeble body. I was 16 and a failure, a loser, a bum. I slept until park rangers poked me up to remind me that this bench was not made to sleep on. I did not realize it then but small victories were coming my way. Have you ever felt a time in your life when you were not successful in the eyes of many but in that time you felt victorious? That’s how I felt when I got into a homeless shelter. I now had my own bed!


               Reality soon set in. I was not independent yet. “I was still homeless.” I often wanted to believe that I could have a better life if only people stopped disappointing me. “Well as of right now”, I said to myself, “you are on your own”. “There is no one else to blame”. So, every morning I went to the Copley library until it closed (and then directly to Barnes and Nobles at the Prudential Center until it too closed) studying job interviewing around the clock. I also thoroughly enjoyed reading inspirational books, autobiographies, motivationals, philosophy, Aesop's fables, business management, historical, self-help and other great books. Books on the philosophy of Nietche, Gandhi, Aristotle and Socrates were very fascinating to me. Reading the greats made me feel as if they were there at the library with me, inspiring and mentoring me. I was learning the principles of success and understanding the value of leadership.  Learning was so empowering. Learning was transforming my thinking and leading me to take some small but specific actions. And as approximatey three years went by, I began to move from a state of depression to hope. I was still sleeping many nights in the Boston Common outdoor park but I was happy because I no longer blamed others and my hopeful future was beginning to take flight.


               I think it was Napoleon Hill and Les Brown who helped me to recognize that temporary defeat was not permanent failure. All of those things that happened to me were just that, things that happened to me. They were relevant and important (they even defined who I was) but they did not define who I was going to be in the future and who I am in the now. As motivational speaker, Les Brown once said, "someone's opinion of you does not have to become your reality". I began to believe in the power of now. Now was never still but ever changing. As my mindset was growing, I began believing that change was possible, change was inevitable and the best change began within. 


               So I took a personal first step towards change. I reconnected with my family. It was my best life decision ever.


               After reconnecting with my family and rebuilding my relationship with my mom, I thought about my academic performance and what I had done wrong. I was hungry for a second chance. With my mom's help, I signed up for my GED exam and I have not looked back since.


               It has been thirteen years since I first became that homeless kid. I am  not too concerned these days about what happens to me as much as I am concerned with what I do about it and despite of it. Overcoming homelessness has taught me that I always have two choices: One, to take up my weaknesses as a challenge or two, to pretend that they do not exist and carry on.


               There are no special treatments for me having overcome my teenage adversities. Quite frankly I do not expect any. What I do expect is for me to remind myself that "you've been through struggles before and you came out victorious". Think about that statement, everyone has the ability to overcome adversity because all of us have been through something before that we went "through" but did not stay there. There is success in all of us. 


                My life has not been easy since choosing to go back to school and to become the change agent that I had hoped to be. Even while a staff member of Harvard’s School of Public Health and an assiduous student at Harvard’s Extension School, I do not believe that I’ve “made it”. Yet I recognize that it has been the work of others, once I decided to be more and do more for myself that has gotten me to where I am today. It is inspirational people like Leo (Leandro Grimaldi Bournissaint) who motivates me to achieve more. At the age of 8, Leo was selling cigarettes in the poorest of slums of Argentina, witnessing friends give in to drugs, and gang violence. He believed that he was meant to achieve the impossible and worked to prove that to himself. He is now a graduate of Harvard University’s Medical School and a student of Harvard’s School of Public Health.


               Success to me is measured in how many I can help to overcome adversity. I understand why Maya Angelou says that the caged bird is singing. It’s because that little bird knows that others need its voice.  


               In January of 2010, as I was reflecting on things that I needed to do for the new year, I realized that my plan did not sufficiently include helping others. Sure, I would still continue to volunteer at the Saint Francis homeless shelter in Chinatown serving meals and washing dishes but I felt that there was something more that I could do for others that year.  I began looking around me and seeing the many students that were at risk of dropping out and those who had and I felt an optimism that maybe there was something that I could do to help, although I didn't have much.


               I began doing research on the problems facing students. I created a simple plan: start with talking to whomever will listen and since my public speaking skills were non-existent, I joined a public speaking training organization. I followed through on that simple little plan, with sweat equity but no regrets. Today, that plan has grown to what is now The National Center for Student Success, an organization that assists students in turning frustration into confidence, self-limiting belieffs and behaviors into a thing of the past. Through creative vision, we (myself, agents of change, ivy league and top-tier university tutors and mentors) utilize some of the best education reform research to create real impact in the lives of students, one student at a time.


               I have not made it yet, and I will not rest until I knock on every door of every public housing in America and help parents and students achieve the leadership transformation that they yearn for. I will not rest until the dropout rate is at zero percent and that student dreams are a reality. As lofty as my  goals sound, I know that they are possible. Thank you all for helping me to see that they are possible. My ambitions and my educational goals are bigger than me. I need to continue to work towards becoming the example that I need to be to so many.


               Thank you for the pats on the back, and the “hey Fernandel, keep your head up” daily greetings. I challenge you to continue to inspire me with your success.

Thank you for being you,