Elizabeth Rodriguez never had to look far for inspiration. It was right in her living room.
Parents Jesus, who's in construction, and Noemi, a day care worker, provided a nurturing home for Rodriguez, the baby of four children. Her older sisters conducted themselves like ladies. And brother Jesus Anthony - well, let's just say it took a while for him to find his way.
When the family lived in a tough, impoverished Bushwick neighborhood of New York, Anthony was running the streets - gangs, drugs, fights, jail.
The family moved to Hartford's Franklin Avenue eight years ago to escape the N.Y. environs. But Anthony still found trouble or trouble would find him. Soon, he would be ordered out of the house.
"It was extremely painful because as far as our upbringing my parents were really good," said Rodriguez, 21, who will be a senior at the University of Hartford in September. "It affected my parents tremendously."
As Anthony struggled to overcome his environment, his little sister kept figuring out how to navigate hers. She attended the Connecticut Baccalaureate Academy magnet school at East Hartford High School and was accepted into UHart's Hartford Scholars program, which pays half tuition for any city student who meets the enrollment requirements.
Rodriguez, who carries a 3.2 grade point average, is majoring in criminal justice and is a resident assistant at one of the dorms - which means her housing is free. She is president of the campus Hispanic organization, reads to elementary school children and encourages them to make college part of their future. She plans to get a master's in criminal justice and wants to stay in the city, working with juvenile delinquents. Eventually, Rodriguez wants to join the FBI.
"Parenting is a huge issue as far as the upbringing of kids and their behavior," said Rodriquez, who speaks English, Spanish and some Chinese. "A lot of the kids in the inner city don't have that mentor to assist them and educate them and enlighten them to what's going on. All they know is the streets."
Part of her day is spent mentoring young offenders in a program run by Community Partners in Action. There, she sees teenagers from unstable homes who have been arrested, involved in drugs and, all too often, are becoming parents themselves.
In recent weeks, we've read ad nauseam about a small segment of city youths, shooting and stabbing their way onto the news pages.
Call this a little reminder that there are far more Elizabeth Rodriguezes in the city - ambitious, industrious and motivated - than those young folks who have lost all hope and respect for life.
"She's a hard-working young woman, the first in her family to go to college and she's given just a tremendous amount to the community since she's been here," said DeLois Lindsey, UHart's assistant vice president for student development. "She's a leader."
While Rodriguez credited her parents and sisters for their support, the decisions of her brother always gnawed at her - "just knowing how he was brought up and the impact that the streets had on him."
Three years ago, Jesus Anthony, now 27, found God. He married a Christian woman and is now a licensed barber in Florida. "He finally became a man," Rodriguez said proudly. "He's doing so much better. It's an amazing story."
And one Rodriguez plans to pass on to other wayward teens who remind her of her big bro.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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