The Miami Herald

Haitian teen driven to achieve -- and help others along

While corralling errant shopping carts in the parking lot of a West Little River grocery store, Estanley Baptiste dreams of Harvard.

He works the late shift every night but Thursday, helping people unload their groceries and scouring the parking lot for trash. On a recent night, the parking lot empties early, and Estanley is called upon to mop the floors. This, he thinks to himself, should be part of his admissions essay.

When the supermarket closes at 10:30 p.m., Estanley, 19, walks the nine-tenths of a mile home to the apartment he shares with a friend. The money he makes covers his part of the rent: $300 a month.

Before collapsing onto the couch, Estanley boots up the laptop he won in a raffle and looks at a poem he wrote:

I'll soar higher than minds

Nothing will put me down

I'm on my way to shine

Estanley left Haiti and arrived at MIA less than four years ago with nothing -- no books, no luggage and no family.

His mother died when he was 6. His father lived in Miami, but didn't want him.

He moved in with an uncle he hardly knew.

Estanley enrolled at Miami Edison, not speaking any English. He carried an English-to-Creole dictionary everywhere he went.

When Estanley's uncle returned to Haiti, the boy was left on his own.

Still, Estanley earned top grades on the state tests in math and reading, and established a tutoring program to help other students do the same. He took college-level classes, too.

Last month, Estanley became the first Edison Senior High School student to win a prestigious Silver Knight Award in nearly two decades. And last week, he graduated with honors.

``He comes from such a difficult background and he's experienced so many different things in his life,'' said Edison Principal Pablo Ortiz. ``Yet, he keeps it in perspective that he's needed to change the lives of the people around him.''

BOOKWORM

Books were always important to Estanley. His mother, who could not read, supported the family by selling books in front a school in Léogane, a coastal city west of Port-au-Prince. She died of a stroke when Estanley was 6. The boy went to live with his aging grandmother.

As a young child, Estanley was at the top of his class at St. Croix Episcopal School.

But when his grandmother suffered a stroke that left her paralyzed, he needed to make money. Estanley rented a sewing machine and began training to become a tailor.

A year later, a phone call changed his life.

The boy's estranged father, who had been granted legal residency in the United States, called on him to come to Miami.

Estanley hesitated.

His grandmother had other plans.

``She wanted me to go,'' Estanley said. ``She told me to make something of myself.''

Those words pushed Estanley to excel at Miami Edison.

In school, Estanley stayed away from students who spoke only Creole, opting instead to practice his English with other teenagers. He made it a point to think in English.

``In Haiti, I was at the top of my class,'' Estanley said. ``I knew I had to learn English to be at the top of my class at Edison.''

He always asked for more work, his teachers said.

A year later, Estanley earned the highest score possible on the state exam in math. And he was one of only a handful of sophomores at Edison to earn a passing grade in reading.

The following year, Estanley asked to be taken out of the ESOL program -- he wanted to be in English-only classes. He started writing for the school newspaper and was elected president of the junior class.

He also developed a tutoring program to help other students just learning English pass the state tests. He enlisted his friends to help serve as tutors.

``I thought, `I will do my best to prove myself and I will do my best to help other people along the way.' ''

Explained writing teacher Seres Victor: ``He's a natural teacher.''

MOMENT OF DECISION

Just when Estanley's life seemed to be stable, again, his world shook.

After his junior year, the boy's uncle announced he would be moving back to Haiti.

Estanley could not move in with his father. He would need to get a job and find his own apartment in Miami.

Later that week, Estanley walked up and down Northwest Seventh Avenue, applying for work at every business he passed. He was hired at the Bravo Supermarket.

Estanley agreed to work as many hours as possible that summer, cleaning the parking lot, mopping the floors, throwing away the day-old deli meat.

``I did whatever they asked me to do,'' he said.

His salary: $7.25 an hour.

He found himself an efficiency in Little Haiti for $370 a month and settled into a new routine. He cooked, cleaned and did his own laundry.

When school started up again, Estanley enrolled in Advanced Placement classes: English, chemistry, calculus, economics and government.

Working a full-time job limited how many extracurricular activities he could handle. He continued his tutoring program, but wasn't able to run for class office.

His daily schedule looked like this:

7 a.m. to 2 p.m.: School

2 to 4 p.m.: Tutoring

5 to 10:30 p.m.: Work

11 p.m. to 2 a.m.: Homework

Even with no family pushing him, he persevered.

``I made up this thing: I told myself that sleeping is a waste of time,'' he said. ``I would think it to myself all the time.''

Estanley's teachers took note.

One suggested he apply for Silver Knights, among the most prestigious awards a South Florida teenager can win. Estanley had no idea what a Silver Knight was -- but he took top honors in the category for English.

Edison's principal and assistant principals helped Estanley find a suit to wear to the ceremony. They attended, too, as his cheering section.

Then came graduation.

On a humid June afternoon, Estanley donned a white cap and gown and a blue National Honors Society sash.

Just before receiving his diploma on stage, Estanley looked out into the audience at the Dade County Auditorium and smiled.

His father was there.

GOALS

Estanley has been accepted at Miami Dade College. He wants to study mathematics, with hopes of one day becoming a college professor.

He has a list of goals:

He wants to write a book about his life and own a new Cadillac.

He wants to send $30 to each member of his family in Haiti. He wants to visit his grandmother in Léogane before she dies.

But most of all, he wants to go to Harvard.

``Once you get to Harvard, your future is set,'' he said. ``You get a quality education and you can do anything.''

The game plan is to get top grades at Miami Dade College, acclimate to college life and then move to Boston.

Estanley spends a recent evening at home, thinking about his future.

While lying on his couch, he trolls the Harvard website, studying the admissions page carefully.

``I think I can get in,'' he says.

His new apartment in West Little River is scarcely decorated -- save for a few academic trophies and a poster of Barack Obama that hangs high on the wall.

That Harvard graduate's story is not lost on Estanley.

``I keep on reaching for the highest star and I shoot at it,'' Estanley says. ``It's just who I am.''




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