Twenty-four years ago Big Brothers and Sisters matched me up with a 6-year-old little gap-toothed boy living in a poor Miami neighborhood I knew only as a place to avoid driving through.
Travis, who had been abandoned, had bounced around relatives, eventually settling in with a great aunt. She became his primary caretaker and called on Big Brothers to give Travis some additional influences.
Our backgrounds couldn’t have been more different, but we found common interests. Watching Hurricane football, going to bad Chuck Norris movies, and cruising in my ’66 Mustang Convertible to name a few.
I liked having a little kid I could boss around; he liked knowing someone who could drive; we both liked having a brother.
But Travis’ life wasn’t easy and his prospects were uncertain. Through the years, I watched as his friends from childhood went to jail, or died, or faded into the vortex of the inner city. His aunt — whose home was surrounded by abandoned dwellings that usually hosted crack dealers — did all she could to keep those influences away from him. She also made sure Travis had faith in his life.
But I always held my breath, wondering whether he would escape the fate of so many others. As a federal prosecutor, I had seen my share of people whose lives jumped the tracks.
Travis had a work ethic but lacked a seriousness of purpose, especially about school. I tried to push and prod and even bribe, but it didn’t seem to take.
But we stuck together through the years. When I met Joan, he proudly stood by me at my wedding. He was only 13.
Over the next decade Travis watched me grow a family and saw the joy it brought me. He saw my vintage Mustang get replaced with a Honda minivan, and Hannah Montana elbow out Chuck Norris. He saw me embrace the responsibility of being a spouse and a parent.
But Travis couldn’t seem to find his own way, and I was beginning to lose hope.
But four years ago, a light went on. Travis met a girl and returned to school, enrolling at Miami-Dade College for a two-year degree. When he married Wilsa in a beautiful ceremony, I was his best man.
When they prepared for the birth of their child, Travis became even more serious. He announced he would become a dentist, a profession that interested him since childhood when he was teased about the space between his front teeth.
At first I was worried his goal was unrealistic, but then figured at least he was motivated. After two years, he graduated MDC and enrolled at Nova Southeastern on an academic scholarship where he sought out health science courses. Travis became a driven student, regularly making the dean’s list and never giving up on his dream of being a dentist.
Earlier this year he took his dental school admission test. I held my breath again. He called me as he left the testing center. He scored in the 93rd percentile and his organic chemistry score was over 97 percent. He was so proud. I was without words. Joan wept.
Here is how Travis answered a question on a dental school application that asked if he believed he grew up “disadvantaged?”
“I grew up in one of Miami’s poorest neighborhoods. I was abandoned by many who you would think would have nurtured me, and raised by my grandmother’s aunt. I remember, as a young boy, hiding inside my house for days after a drive-by shooting. But through it all people — sometimes perfect strangers — inspired me to never give up and to always believe in myself. So yes, I did have a disadvantaged life by most definitions, but that life has made me better prepared and more appreciative of the opportunities and blessings I do have.”
Travis applied to dental schools across the country. Friends chipped in for his airfare and accommodations to get him to his interviews, and he borrowed luggage, ties and overcoats. In late December he heard back from most of the schools he applied to. He heard back from Tufts University and the University of Florida, from Nova in Broward County, and Temple in Philadelphia, and Boston University.
They all had one simple message: Accepted!
He has decided to go to the dental school at Tufts — the same university I attended as an undergrad.
Dan Gelber is a former House Democratic Leader.