‘A World I Never Knew Existed’ — This is Paul’s Story
Paul first became involved with Project Legacy when he was 14 years old and without transportation to school. A recent change had been made within the school district where there was no longer transportation provided to kids that lived within a mile of their schools. Unfortunately, for youth living in poverty, this meant many of them had to walk a mile to school and back each day, through the rain, snow or blazing heat.
Eventually, because Paul didn’t have access to transportation to and from school, he received a truancy notice due to his absences.
Paul recalls his elementary school years in Chicago. He slept in a car with his mother and younger sisters, sometimes staying with one of her friends. He remembers this time as one with no stability — and often, no food.
As a refugee from Cambodia, his mother was dealing with her own trauma and was ill-equipped to parent her children. Not only was she unable to provide for their physical needs, but their emotional needs were unmet as well.
Getting to school was not a priority for Paul — basic survival was.
When Paul was ten years old, his uncle was involved in a gang-related shooting in Chicago where he was shot in the head and died three weeks later. Soon after, Paul’s mother decided to move the family to Rochester.
Unfortunately, moving to a new physical location does not solve problems, and too often the problems simply move along with the adults. Homeless in Chicago became homeless in Rochester. Addictions in Chicago became addictions in Rochester, as did self-medicating trauma with alcohol and gambling for Paul’s mother. The only difference was that Paul was now getting older.
The lifestyle he was familiar with in Chicago was present here in Rochester, but the 10-year-old boy who was sleeping in cars in Chicago grew to be the middle schooler who now dressed in oversized clothes. Wearing blue from head to toe sent a strong message to the other kids: He was identified as a gang member by classmates, teachers and the administration. “Watch that one,” a middle school administrator warned the high school administrator.
But, “that one” was different from what he was assumed to be.
Paul Ros was a young man who knew that he wanted something better than what he had seen growing up. He also knew his future was in his hands — unlike the students whose parents attended every school board meeting and lobbied the school board and superintendent, no parent was fighting to see that his needs were met in school. And no parent was available at home to nurture him, either. If he was going to survive – and thrive – he was going to have to figure out how to leverage every opportunity he could find. And so, when his friends told him about “this one white lady” who would give him a ride to basketball practice, buy him shoes and make sure he had food to eat – he said yes.
Yes to a chance. Yes to a new start. Yes to a legacy.
Paul joined Project Legacy and I started checking his grades, asking him why he was failing and marked absent. He took a risk and was honest with me — he had no transportation to school. He could get there weather permitting, but if it was storming or too cold outside, he was late. When he was late, his first hour teacher marked him absent, and then the school reported him truant. When the truancy officer showed up at his door, the school hadn’t asked why — and neither did the officer. They simply told him he needed to be in school.
This is when the relationship between Paul and I was cemented. For the rest of the school year and into the next, I picked Paul up from home every morning and made sure he got to school on time. At times it was a challenge to sync up the timing between my own children’s rides to school with his, but we made it work.
High school was difficult for Paul. With responsibilities at home to babysit his younger siblings, cook and clean, he didn’t have the free time his peers had. He also didn’t have an environment at home that was conducive to studying. But he was focused on graduation and a future that included college.
Immediately after graduating, another obstacle was created when his mother suddenly decided to leave the state with her younger children. She had no plan other than that she was leaving. Because of her decision, Paul became homeless for a while. Not many people knew about this but he confided in me, and together, we figured out what he needed to get through these new changes: A safety net when the world seemed uncertain. For Paul, this meant food, clothing, someone to talk to and a membership to the Rochester Athletic Club as a healthy coping outlet. Project Legacy provided these things to Paul.
That summer, Paul attended summer school to make up the credits he had missed while working full-time to support himself. He graduated from high school and his graduation was a testament to his resiliency and strength. Paul graduated while many of his middle school friends did not, even though he was basically alone. Instead of quitting, he called upon the inner-strength that defined him.
After graduation, he continued to work diligently at the goal he’d set before: college. He worked full-time for a year washing cars to support himself and save for college. He wanted to leave Rochester, but also knew that with his low high school GPA he wouldn’t be able to get into a state college or university. After many trips back and forth to visit colleges, he finally decided on Minnesota Community and Technical College in Minneapolis.
I went with him the day he registered, helped him fill out financial aid forms and spoke to the counselor. The same counselor later called me after the first semester ended, sharing that Paul had made the Dean’s List.
“That one” was again the “one to watch,” only this time, it was said with pride and esteem.
For the past three years, Paul has had two other people in his life who support him, cheer him on, and brag about his grades and his character. Gayle and Doug Craik of South Dakota became Paul’s Operation Encourage sponsors, and what started as a simple relationship consisting of care packages sent once a month has developed into a relationship similar to that of parents and a son — pride, support and love now envelop Paul.
The Craik’s also share they have found a sense of purpose and love bigger than the ugly politics that have divided our country over the past three years.
When Paul was in a serious car accident in St. Paul, the first people he called were me, Gayle and Doug. When his textbook cost more than the amount in his bank account, he called one of us. And when he was notified once again, that he had made the Dean’s List, he called his newfound loving support system: Gayle, Doug and myself.
The boy who spent his childhood living in cars and sleeping on floors, who was often hungry, who was veering towards a gang lifestyle, who was truant, and who graduated from high school with a 1.5 GPA has now begun a professional position working for a bank. He will be graduating from college with honors in December. He’s the first in his family to graduate from high school, the first to graduate from college, and the first to address generational trauma so that his wounds can heal.
Project Legacy is about relationships that are deep, genuine and strong. Project Legacy is about removing barriers and providing intensive support so that lives and pain can be transformed. Project Legacy is about becoming the family that some have never experienced – going above and beyond so that all youth have the same opportunities — and support — as our own children.
As Paul says, “Project Legacy opens doors to see a world we never knew existed. Project Legacy helps us see a place for ourselves in this world. They stand beside us until we are ready to take our place in this new world we had never even imagined we could belong to. I can own a home if I want to. I can rent my own apartment. I’ll have stability and financial security I never would have had without Project Legacy’s support. Because I had never seen this sort of world, I didn’t know how to function in this kind of a world.”
Today, Paul gives back to other kids who share a similar story. He speaks to middle school boys who are repping gang colors at school. He speaks to them with a quiet authority and humility that they respect. He knows their brothers, their uncles, and he knows what the future holds for boys who hang onto the gang identity. He has seen too many of his old friends go to jail or prison, and he has lost some to death. Now, he shows them there is another way — a way that involves self-love, healing, discipline, education and respect.
Paul no longer represents gang-colors. Today, Paul represents the hope for a better future and the chance at building a legacy. We couldn’t be more proud of the young man he has become and are so grateful for his courage to share his story.
According to Paul, he shares his story so that people will understand the barriers kids like him face even when they want another life so badly. Thank you for your courage, Paul. We’re so proud of you.