Fred Mathieu always admired the way his mother Marie not only found a way to maintain a house with six kids by herself, but also make a living and still find the time to send care packages to friends and family in Haiti.
“My mom never received the highest education,” the 18-year-old Coral Reef High senior said. “But here in America she made the best out of what she could.”
Mathieu knows his mother is looking down on him and smiling now. Like his mother, Mathieu also has made the best of a tough situation, and because of it, he was honored Wednesday with this year’s Leo Suarez/Walter Krietsch Courage Award at the Miami Herald’s All-Dade Athletic Awards breakfast.
“His entire senior year he basically had his mom in the hospital,” Coral Reef coach Miguel Dominguez said.
But that didn’t stop Mathieu from fulfilling all of his obligations — even the new ones he had to add on after Marie got sick.
A two-sport athlete at Coral Reef, Mathieu finished 28-12 and placed sixth at the Greater Miami Athletic Conference wrestling championships in the winter, and then qualified for regionals in both the 110-meter and 300-meter hurdles in track in the spring.
Sports turned out to be the easy part. The hard part for Mathieu was juggling everything else.
With his stepfather running a business in Haiti to help pay for their home in Cutler Bay and his mother battling pancreatic cancer in the hospital since November, Mathieu and his older stepbrother Samuel, 20, worked to help cover expenses. Meanwhile, Fred and his 17-year-old half-sister Esther would care for their three younger siblings, Carlin (16), Job (10) and Mailie (7), with occasional help from church friends.
Mathieu, who worked two jobs (one at a clothing store in the mall; the other as a server at GameTime in Sunset Place), would do all that and still find a way to make it to school and his sporting events on time, all while still taking a bus to Mercy Hospital every night after work to sit by his mother.
Her fight finally ended in February, a week before his district wrestling tournament. Grieving, Mathieu still wanted to compete. But he never made it because his mother’s funeral was scheduled on the same morning of the meet.
“The hardest thing I remember was how everything changed,” Mathieu said. “One of the first weekends after she was diagnosed, I had a wrestling tournament. I spent the night with her at the hospital after the first day of the tournament. The next morning, I woke up and went to school and returned to the tournament. But no matter how much I tried to get into the zone, I couldn’t. I didn’t have that same enthusiasm as I did before.
“Honestly, it started to affect me heavily. My mom was slowly dying and I could see it all happening. And all I could do was help clean her up or help her get into her hospital bed.”
His lifelong dream of going to college, meanwhile, started to feel like it might never happen. That’s when his wrestling coach and school athletic director stepped in, reached out to the school’s former college assistance counselor, Jeanne Harper, a teacher at Ferguson High, and the three worked toward finding a school that might be willing to help Mathieu.
In the end, they found three schools, including Regis College — a small, private school in Boston — willing to give Mathieu nearly all of the financial aid he needed to if he was willing to run track. With his older half-brother Victor Daniel, 34, living in Boston, Regis was the perfect fit.
“The feeling was astounding,” Mathieu said. “I didn’t think I was going to go anywhere because honestly my track season wasn’t that great. I really had no high hopes for anything. I was honestly bringing myself down because I saw my future going different and different. I cried when I found out Regis could take me. It was a dream come true because my mom always wanted me to go to school.”
Mathieu said his stepfather will likely to take his youngest siblings with him back to Haiti while Samuel, Esther and Carlin stay here to finish school.
Mathieu said he plans to major in communications and eventually seek a job in human resources in a hospital. He said he wants that job to eventually help hospitals find better ways to help struggling families.
“I want to make sure no patient is mistreated,” Mathieu said. “There were many times I felt like my mom was there dying and no one was around for her except me. No one should go through what she and we did.”