The A Better Chance program has brought some remarkable teenagers to Westport. They, in turn, have enriched our town beyond measure.
None is more remarkable than Khaliq Sanda.
Arriving here in the fall of 2010, he immediately made his mark on Staples High School, and the entire community.
With a magnetic personality, an insightful mind, a welcoming spirit and a heart of gold, he made friends everywhere. Staples students, younger siblings, teachers — all were drawn to Khaliq.
Lori and David Sochol met him when the ABC home on North Avenue was being renovated. They and their neighbors, Laurie and Dave Gendell, each hosted 3 scholars.
The Sochols’ friendship with Khaliq grew stronger as he grew older. They were proud of his successes in the classroom, and the passion with which he got involved in Westport life.
Khaliq took 10 AP classes. He tutored. He worked at Internal Medicine Associates. He volunteered with Key Club, and served on Student Assembly.
He touched everyone he met.
After graduation he headed to Duke University. He took pre-med courses. He wanted to be a psychiatrist.
In May of 2016, Khaliq was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Quickly, it metastasized to his brain.
The Sochols, and many other Westporters, stepped up to help. They made him comfortable, and ensured he had access to the best treatment at Sloan Kettering,
Following a trip to London and Barcelona with friends hee returned to Duke as a junior, and continued treatments there.
After graduating in 2018, Khaliq got a job and apartment in New York. When COVID hit, he moved in with the Sochols.
In November, he lost the use of his legs. David found him an apartment in New York. School friends raised funds for the 2-bedroom place. Aides came during the day. At night, Westport and Duke friends helped.
Some were 3 years older; others, 2 years younger. “Everyone at Duke knew him,” Lori says. “They all said he changed their lives. Some said he saved their lives.”
Khaliq was hospitalized on Thursday. Over 100 friends came through over the weekend, to say goodbye.
This morning, with his family by his side, Khaliq Sanda died.
He leaves a remarkable legacy.
“He saw the best in us — even when we didn’t — and made us want to be better, and do better,” says David Sochol.
“His loving friendship quietly motivated us — again often without us even realizing it — to live up to our ideals and achieve our promise.
“Khaliq defined courage, character and grace. He faced unimaginable adversity with extraordinary humor, patience and strength. He will be missed, but his memory will endure in the actions of all who knew him and loved him.”
A college scholarship fund for Sloan Kettering patients will be set up soon to celebrate his many achievements. Details will be announced on “06880.”
In 2014, Khaliq spoke at the A Better Chance Gala.
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.
The highlight of the evening was speeches by graduating 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.
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.
And now, to bring a smile to your face: Here’s a video from 2013. With his usual spirit and zest, Khaliq and good friend Roscoe Brown asked 2 girls to the junior prom: