Sixteen years ago, I joined about 30 Hartford high-schoolers on a long bus ride to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
The students were among a group of 71 SAND Elementary School sixth-graders who years earlier were promised that if they finished high school, their college educations would be paid for.
Part of the "I Have A Dream II" program was also to expose the students to life outside of a city most had never traveled beyond, to show the kids who came from some of the poorest and toughest parts of Hartford that there was life, and opportunity, beyond the city border.
The Dartmouth trip was a little rocky. Many of the Hartford students wanted no part of the Ivy Leaguers. And the Ivy Leaguers, in turn, didn't know what to make of the city kids — especially when they learned one of them was on a weekend pass from a detention center.
Ramiro Santiago was one of the students on that trip. Now 32 and a father, he laughs when I remind him that he nearly brought the campus tour guide to tears.
He actually mellowed mid-trip. But he was a handful. At 14, he had quit school, sold drugs and started running with gangs. At 15, he was caught in a stolen Lincoln. When I met him, he was 17 and his sister had recently been killed. He'd returned to school and the program looking to change his life before it was too late.
"I promised my little sister that I'd be a football star," Santiago said then. "I want to be in the NFL. I know the bad things I did will haunt me forever, but with the opportunity I have to go to college, I think I can turn things around."
Santiago did play football for Bulkeley High School. And, he said, he briefly went to Central.
Only a handful of the Dreamers finished college — about five or six, said John Murphy, one of the sponsors of the program. Among them, Eddie Lawrence, who was once a ward of the state and now, Murphy said, works for the government. The FBI, his proud classmates think.
If I thought Murphy would be disappointed at the low number of college graduates, I was wrong. He would have liked more to finish college, he admitted. He also would have liked to attend more graduations than court dates. Murphy, who is a lawyer, has represented a few of the students in various cases.
But Murphy urged me to look beyond the numbers — to the lives of the students, many of whom got together in Hartford for a reunion Friday.
Most may not have college degrees, though many are still pursuing their educations. But they have healthy families, good jobs and productive lives. Raymond Garcia has served multiple tours in Iraq. And Santiago managed to grab 15 minutes of well-deserved fame.
On an desolate Northampton, Mass., street one early morning in 2009, the onetime mouthy teenager demonstrated the type of man he'd become.
Santiago was on the job as a driver for Rexel, an electrical supply company, when he came upon a burning home.
He ran into the home three times to rescue a 12-year-old boy, his mother, his disabled grandfather and the family dog.
When they were all safe, Santiago quietly left to finish his deliveries. He's been nominated for a Carnegie Medal, which is awarded to civilians who risk their lives to save others.
Not a college degree. But a lot to be proud of.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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