Saturday night’s A Better Chance gala was — as it always is — one of the most emotional, warm and beneficial (as in fund-raising) nights of the year.
Hundreds of Westporters mingled with ABC House graduates, and were gratified to hear updates on their highly accomplished lives. There were silent and live auctions. The food was excellent.
But the highlight of the evening — as it always is — was a pair of speeches by current Staples seniors. Khaliq Sanda and Ruben Guardado talked about their difficult journeys to, and through, Westport. They graciously thanked all who had helped them so far, and promised to help others who follow them.
They spoke humbly, with honesty, insight and power. They stood tall and proud. They awed us. For all they have given us, we are profoundly grateful.
Here is part of what Khaliq said:
Almost exactly a decade before I was born, President Reagan stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” He was speaking literally about the barrier that separated East and West Berlin. I want to talk about metaphorical walls.
When my parents were in their 20s, they emigrated from Cameroon to the United States. Their motivation was the same as most immigrants: they wanted their children to get the kind of education that is unavailable in the country they come from. Their move to a strange and unfamiliar country — through checkpoints and gates and then up and over an invisible wall — was a sacrifice that I think about every day. My parents’ American lives and the fact that I am standing here in front of you today are proof that these walls can be scaled. But climbing over them requires more than just the usual factors, like perseverance, determination, adaptability, hard work, and good luck. It requires, above all, a human ladder to help you vault over the barricade.
It was not easy for Khaliq to enter Staples as a freshman. He did not know a single person, but every classmate seemed to know everyone else. “I was on one side of the wall,” he said. “Everyone else was on the other.” He wondered if the next 4 years of his life would be like that.
He found refuge in — “of all places” — Karen Thomas’ geometry class. Her dedication to teaching — and to him — was profound. Khaliq found other “amazing” educators at Staples — Heather Colletti-Houde, Will Jones, Christina Richardson, Suzanne Kammerman, and more — and he flourished.
Other strong arms lifted him up.
My host family, the Mathiases, was indispensable. Kim and Mark, your compassion, care, and willingness to make me a part of your family are the greatest gifts you could have given me. Nick and Nicole, you are the younger brother and sister I always wanted but would have treated really badly if you actually were my younger brother and sister. This way is better: I love you and I like you. If you ever need me, know I’m only a phone call away.
Khaliq also thanked the resident directors at ABC House; his fellow residents; ABC board members and volunteers, who provided a home away from home, rides and much else.
He spoke of his bonds with Michael Newman and the Peer Advisors group. In fact, he said, Michael is the reason he wants to study neuroscience. He thanked Kim Freudigman, for helping him reach his dream of studying at a university he once would never have dreamed of applying to.
Then, the once friendless Khaliq — now one of the most popular students at Staples — said:
If you’re going to climb a really massive, imposing wall, you’re going to need to stand on the shoulders of giants — young giants. There is absolutely no way I would have been able to make it through this program without my best friends and their families. Roscoe Brown, Grant Heller, Cooper Shippee, Jeremy Langham, Austin Nicklas, Joey Schulman, Charlie Leonard, Henri Rizack, Eliza Yass, Annie and Lauren Raifaisen, Elizabeth Colwell, Emily Korn, Elizabeth Camche and Caroline O’Brien — thank you. You have been there for me through thick and thin. When I have needed someone to talk to or share a laugh with, you were my first choice, my early decision. You have been crucial in my life beyond what any of you will ever understand or I could put into words. Without revealing anything that could get us all in trouble, let me just say… I don’t think there’s been a single dull moment.
Without sounding boastful, Khaliq described his life in Westport: 10 AP classes, a job at Internal Medicine of Westport, volunteer work with the Key Club, “advocating for students on Student Assembly, and trying to maintain the façade of a well-rested, happy-go-lucky, not-a-care-in-the-world, totally color-coordinated teenager.”
He concluded by reaching back to his original reference to walls.
When President Reagan asked President Gorbachev to tear down the wall, East Germans and West Germans had been separated for nearly 30 years. You can imagine — I can imagine — what they were thinking: the people on the other side of the wall are not like me. Their lives are not like my life. Their problems are not like my problems.
That’s what I thought when I first moved here. From my side of the wall, Westport seemed like a picture-book town. The reality is much more complex. I feel incredibly fortunate to have lived here for 4 years, but I also feel incredibly fortunate to have lived in Queens and Lawrenceville, Georgia, and to have been born into my amazing family. We don’t have a Range Rover in the driveway, but there is always a home-cooked meal on the kitchen table. And our house isn’t 11,000 square feet, but it’s filled with the people I love most in the world, filled with laughter and joy.
My journey these last 4 years is similar to the one my parents took when they were only a little older than I am now: moving to a place unlike your home, starting over with no family or friends to support you, and having to stay strong even when things were rocky. I think my parents would say that every moment of their journey was worth it, and every day, I am amazed by how strong, courageous, caring, and wise my parents are. Mom and Dad, you mean the world to me, I thank you again for having the confidence in me, and I hope I’ve made you proud. I love you guys.
Stay tuned for Ruben Guardado’s speech.