Wish Book

Wish Book: Community help transforms life of once-homeless Haitian teen

Stanley Simon tosses a ball in the air at Pine Island Park in Plantation on Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2014.
Stanley Simon tosses a ball in the air at Pine Island Park in Plantation on Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2014. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

When Stanley Simon was 14, his father went back to Haiti for several months. He left the boy with $10 and the rent due on the one-bedroom house they shared.

First Simon sold his clothes on the street to try to make ends meet, but before long, the landlord evicted him. Then a two-year odyssey of couch-surfing, sleeping on the floor of an Oakland Park laundromat and skipping school began.

He stayed with an uncle and later with a cousin, but his father said he had not given his permission and threatened to call police if he remained with them, said Simon, who is now 17. “He didn’t want me to stay with anyone.”

With his relatives fearful of retaliation, his Haitian passport expired and his father threatening he would “get him deported,” Simon felt he had nowhere to turn. No one at school, except a few friends who offered temporary beds, knew what his life was like, he said.

Sometimes he only showed up at school a few times a month because he had nothing to wear, Simon said. His entire wardrobe was a pair of jeans, boxers and two shirts.

Some teachers noticed that he always wore the same clothes, but he didn’t reach out for help. Finally, last January he worked up his courage and confided in Paul Zenon, a social worker at Fort Lauderdale High School and a man he had known since middle school.

Then his life began to change very rapidly — for the better.

Zenon filed a child abuse complaint and told Simon he would be taken to a safe place.

This time the system worked well. Within a few days Simon was placed in a foster home and has been with his foster mom, Delores, ever since. Now without day-to-day worries about survival, he’s regularly attending school.

Michael Gagne, a former foster parent who adopted the three boys he cared for, was appointed as his guardian ad litem and educational surrogate. He quickly began working with Legal Aid Service of Broward County on Simon’s immigration status.

“I came to South Florida in 2009 when I was 11 years old after my dad and step-mom got married. She lived here,” said Simon.

Simon was born when his mother was 16 years old, and she and his father never married. He lived at the home of his paternal grandparents in Petit-Goâve, a small coastal town in southern Haiti, before his father decided to come to the United States.

“I don’t think my father really wanted to bring me, but my uncle put my name on the paper,” Simon explained.

Life with his stepmother didn’t go well. She and his father frequently fought, and just as frequently, Simon said, his father beat him with a belt. Two years after they arrived, Simon said his stepmother threw them out.

That same year his Haitian passport expired, and he had no status in the United States.

With Legal Aid’s help, Simon has managed to get a new Haitian passport and a work authorization card, and is in the process of getting a green card. As “an abandoned minor,” he’s eligible for legalization.

But time is of the essence. Simon will turn 18 on June 8. “He’s now no longer illegal, but he’s not yet legal,” said Gagne. “It’s important that Legal Aid get this done while he is still a minor. We’re optimistic the process will be completed and he’ll be approved before he turns 18. We have a really good team working for Stanley now, and I’m very proud of that.”

Tina Severance-Fonte, president of the Broward Foster and Adoptive Parent Association, nominated Simon for Wish Book.

“He’s been through a lot, but all his trials haven’t jaded him in the least,” she said. “He has a wonderful spirit about him, and he’s very much a gentleman.”

She first met him at the beginning of the school year when he came to one of the association’s meetings to babysit younger children for community service hours while the adults met.

“He caught my eye because he was very kind and engaged with the children,” she said. “His gentle nature and humility just shine through.”

Severance-Fonte said she has come in contact with other young men with similar troubled childhoods who are angry and aggressive. “He is just the opposite,’’ she said.

Asked if he ever became angry about his situation, Simon is philosophical: “Life is life. You have to take the bad with the good.”

The good manners that his elders frequently remark on, he said. were learned on his own. “I learned that if I was rude, no one was going to take me in,” he said.

During his ordeal, he also began to find his voice. His father told social workers that he had run away from home, and initially the plan was to try to reunite him with his dad.

During a hearing at Dependency Court, he had to work up his courage and tell the judge that he was afraid of his father, that family unification wasn’t an option.

“He beat me with a belt almost every day when we were living together,” Simon said. “He said he didn’t like me.” Asked if his dad was ever nice to him, Simon shook his head. “Never,” he said softly.

But he added, “It’s the past; I’ve got to move forward now.”

“Stanley has been able to break the cycle of abuse, and I’m really proud of him for it,” said Gagne. “He hasn’t let his past define him.”

Now he gets up at 5 a.m. to catch a 5:45 a.m. bus to Fort Lauderdale High, where he is a senior. He laments he’ll need an extra year to graduate because he didn’t earn enough credits when his attendance was so spotty. But now he is enjoying school, especially reading and physics.

For the first time in his life, he said, he is feeling like a normal teenager. He’s joined a community soccer team, where he plays forward and midfielder, and he also enjoys basketball. “I’ve been playing soccer since I was this high,” he said, indicating his knees. “It’s the No. 1 sport in Haiti.”

Simon doesn’t see college in his future, but he would like to go to technical school to learn more about repairing computers and other electronics. “I like to do hand work,” he said. “I know how to do it and I like it.” Some day he dreams of opening his own repair business.

Right now he’d like a part-time job after school hours. Despite putting in many applications, Simon didn’t land a summer job and was very disappointed, Gagne said.

Asked what he would like from Wish Book, Simon acknowledged that he could use some new sneakers and clothes but he had to be prodded to ask for anything beyond that — and his hope for a job.

When the school year started, Gagne gave him $100 to shop for clothes. “I thought we would go to the mall, but he said, ‘Let’s go to the thrift store so I can get more clothes.’ He’s ever the practical one. It would be nice if he could splurge a little because he certainly deserves it.”

But Simon’s other wishes are also practical. He’d like an international calling card so he can phone his mother in Haiti. She still lives in Petit-Goâve, and he talks with her from time to time. “My mom thinks it’s better for me to be here,” he said.

He’d also like monthly Broward County Transit bus passes so he can get to soccer practice and some gift cards for his Metro PCS phone plan.

Recently Gagne took him to the second dental visit of his life, and it turns out he needs extensive dental work — perhaps as much as $4,000 worth. Because he’s not yet eligible for Medicaid, Gagne said, it’s unlikely he’ll get the work done unless someone donates dental services.

Gagne also suggests that it would be nice if Stanley had his own laptop loaded with Microsoft Office. “There is a shared computer at his foster home, but it is outdated,” he said. “When he transfers to a specialized technical school, a lot of his work will be computer-based.”

Asked if would like a laptop, the young man just smiled in agreement.

How to help

Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year.

▪ To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook

▪ To give via your mobile phone, text WISH to 41444

▪ For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook@MiamiHerald.com

▪ Most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans

Read more at Miami Herald.com/wishbook

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