“When I was 5 or 6 years old my mom and I fled Veracruz, Mexico. Escaping an abusive relationship with my father,” explains Brandon. “As a young kid I still understood what was going on and why we had to leave.” Brandon vividly remembers crossing with the Coyotes to the United States, “I had really bad asthma and walking through the hot desert made it so much worse. We ran out of water so we ended up giving up. We turned ourselves in.” That was the first time.
“My mom is a very kind and loving person. She’s really strong and has a big heart,” smiles Brandon. His mom knew she needed to leave the country in order to get them out of the abusive relationship. “The second time we traveled from Juarez, Mexico to Tucson, Arizona to Chicago and finally to Grand Rapids. My aunt lived there.” His aunt was able to help his mom find work at a local factory. Brandon and his mom lived in a small apartment with his aunt and six other people for the first 5 years. “During that time she was my mom and my dad.” A few years later “Popo” came into his family, becoming his step-dad and eventually “dad.”
“I started school at Burton Elementary at the end of 2003. I had never gone to school before. We couldn’t afford it in Mexico. Everything was new. New culture. New language. Everything sounded blurry.” Brandon remembers one of his teachers, Ms. Pena, who made him feel welcome and helped him understand the new culture and language. She was married to a Latino and had learned Spanish. “My mom and I were really surprised.”
Although Brandon was getting used to his new life and new school. He still struggled with English and reading. His teacher, Ms. Morningstar, helped him get a mentor, Allan. “At first I was kind of scared. I didn’t know much English. It was tough to say words at the beginning. He made me feel confident and not worry if I said it correctly. He would show me a graph of objects and pictures – made sure I knew the basics to help me communicate.”
“Soon I started looking forward to [mentoring]. One time I got upset I couldn’t spell the words on a quiz. I tried to memorize them as best as I could. He cheered me up.” Allan, cared about him and just showed up. “I remember him asking me ‘how was my day, how’s mom, how do you feel in school’ – he always started there. My mom wasn’t always at home, she worked a lot. It helped having someone ask me how my day was.”
One of Brandon’s favorite memories was going to Spring Hill Camp. “It was incredible. I had never gone camping. We did tie dye shirts, rock climbing, there was a lake – it was the most incredible thing. One day kids started getting cards and gifts from their parents. I thought my parents probably didn’t know. Then I received a bag of candy and a card from Allan. I thought no one would remember me. It made my day to be honest.”
“When I came home I was talking about camping so much we finally went as a family. My parents wanted to go. In the Latino culture we usually stay close to our community. It was new for us. We went to Silver Laker and it changed the perspective of my family a lot. Now we go camping every year.”
“My mentors and teachers saw potential in me. Without my mentors I wouldn’t have graduated from high school. I wouldn’t have done a lot of activities or been as involved. I probably wouldn’t have the job that I do now. Now I go to Grand Rapids Community College, I enjoy graphic design, and I work at a nonprofit, Health Net of West Michigan. I’m really involved in the community and like to help people access resources.”
Brandon has also volunteered for FitKids, Michigan United, and Cosecha GR. “I’ve done a lot of public speaking about immigration, immigrant rights, sharing my story, and how to get involved.” In the future he hopes to start a nonprofit. His dream school is Calvin College. When asked about what he hopes the future will bring the mentoring program, “I hope a lot of kids are participating, I never want the program to end. It benefits the whole community.”
If you’d like to support other students like Brandon please consider giving the gift of mentoring starting at $10 a month.