Every March, the A Better Chance “Dream Event” is one of the greatest feel-good galas of the year.
Each time, the graduating seniors’ speeches are the highlights of the entire evening.
But Luis Cruz’s speech Saturday night to an overflow crowd ranks among the best ever.
The only senior among this year’s 8 ABC scholars, he wowed the crowd with his insights, passion and compassion. Here is an edited version of his remarks:
This program has meant a lot to me and my family. It is because of people like you that I was given this opportunity — to live in one of the best communities in the entire country.
The 2014-15 A Better Chance scholars. Luis Cruz is 2nd from right.
Leaving Newark to see the A Better Chance program for the 1st time, I was filled with mixed emotions. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to leave the life I knew — the ice cream trucks marking the rhythm of the day as they repeatedly passed my apartment; seeing and hearing kids playing in the open fire hydrants, and watching the sea of kids riding their bicycles toward the park, which I used to do every Friday with my friends, until my mom took away my bike because she didn’t want me to get hit by a car.
Pulling into Westport I saw big homes, with big yards, with big cars, parked in front of their big homes. There was grass everywhere — green and perfectly trimmed. Instead of crowds of people, there was a parade of SUVs. Joggers and deer shared the roads.
I remembered my middle school, with its security guards in every hallway. In Newark there were fist fights, food fights and paper fights. My classmates cared only about their reputation and looking fresh. No one really cared about school.
In Westport, it’s pretty funny to me that the richest kids come to school looking so ruffled. Kids in Newark wouldn’t be caught dead looking that poor.
When the principal visited a class in Newark, that meant another lecture. In Westport, it means that Mr. Dodig wants to know how I’m fitting in and what I did last weekend.
The A Better Chance program has allowed me to take advantage of many opportunities in Westport. I have grown a lot from all of these experiences, especially from joining the great athletic programs at Staples.
Luis explained how — although he was “a bad soccer player and a terrible runner,” and had a very difficult time with the fitness demands — freshman coach Chris O’Dell took him aside.
He asked me the most important question of my teen life: “Do you want to keep going? It won’t get any easier from here.”
I hesitated, as I was in such pain and agony.
I just went with my gut.
“Yes, Coach O’Dell. I’ll take that challenge.” From that day on, I never looked back.
Luis fell in love with running. He joined the indoor and outdoor track teams. He worked hard, and improved steadily. The next fall he ran cross country. To laughter, he said, “I didn’t even know that was a sport.”
Luis Cruz: cross country star.
At the New England Outdoor Championship, in spring of sophomore year, Luis earned All-New England status.
I was so proud of myself. I wanted to tell everyone what I had just accomplished. The only sad part was that my parents weren’t there to see it. All I could do was send them a video and show them my medal. But what really counted is that they knew I had worked hard for this.
That day marked my growth as a runner, from the slowest to the fastest. That is the physical evidence of the powerful impact of A Better Chance. I learned something these past 4 years: “If no one else sees it for you, you must see it for yourself.”
Luis Cruz at the A Better Chance Dream Event, flanked by his teammate and great friend Oliver Hickson, and his track coach Laddie Lawrence. (Photo/Jessica Sochol)
Luis traveled to Costa Rica, for a summer program. It opened his eyes to even more possibilities.
I realized that humans have the power to make a difference. This is why I am considering becoming an engineer. Solving real-world problems, using my talents in mathematics, is how I want to effect positive change in the world.
On the surface, it was an easy decision to join A Better Chance, to go to a school with all the resources a student could possibly need. My mother and father were proud of me for making the decision to explore a different way of life, yet they were silent on the car ride to Connecticut. We all knew that the next 4 years were ones we wouldn’t get back in terms of being a family.
My parents never got to see me pick my first pumpkin. They missed the chance to see me break the 5-minute-mile barrier. They never got to see me play soccer on a team with uniforms and real cleats. They weren’t there to comfort me when I lost a race for my team because I dropped the baton.
But they will be there when I graduate high school. And I know they will be there when I graduate college!
A proud Luis Cruz, and his equally proud family. (Photo/Jessica Sochol)
It has been difficult at times, living between 2 very different communities and cultures. But the sacrifice has paid off in my achievements, both academically and socially.
I will have more choices than my parents had. I marvel now that my parents have survived in a country where they barely speak the languages. I am also amazed and thankful that they realized that education is the key to a better life.
After thanking his parents emotionally — “Te amo Mami y Papi. Gracias para todo” — Luis concluded:
My parents and I talk nearly every day. They are nothing like typical teen conversations. I have so much to say to them, because all of my experiences are new to all of us. I remember buying my 1st pair of Sperry Topsiders. While that is not an event worth discussing for some, for me it was a milestone. My parents and I talked about it forever — once I told them that they were shoes.
Now, in less than 3 months I will become the 1st person in my immediate family to go to college. Just like Forrest Gump, I went from being average to being a winner.
I am Luis Cruz, aka Papi, your friend. Thank you!
(To learn more about A Better Chance, click here.)