Luis Hernandez was hunkered down at his older sister’s home in Jamaica, Queens, N.Y., while Hurricane Sandy carved its destructive path.
Hernandez, his mother and 13-year-old brother had been evacuated from their apartment at a public housing complex in Red Hook, located along the East River in Brooklyn, N.Y. At their complex, storm surges were expected to reach higher than 25 feet.
Before his sister’s place lost power, he saw photos on the Internet of children swimming in water near Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, where a toxic stew of industrial chemicals and debris was filling the waterways.
“They were jumping in this filthy, toxic water,” Hernandez recalled of the October 2012 superstorm that killed more than 53 people in New York alone. “Cars were floating away. It was all so surreal.”
Though Hernandez’s apartment was on the sixth floor, its roof and walls were badly water damaged. Frances Velez, his single, working mother, had injured her leg in a fall prior to the storm. Without food and electricity for several weeks, Hernandez helped his family by waiting in three-hour lines at Red Cross, filling up a laundry cart with food, water and other necessities, and dragging the cart up six floors every few days.
“I had to fill the role as head of the household,” said Hernandez, now 18. “It was a tough experience. I felt I had the world on my shoulders.”
At the time, Hernandez was preparing for an interview in New York for acceptance into the USC Posse Scholars Program, which builds on the USC Norman Topping Student Aid Fund and USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative, benefitting first-generation college students and underrepresented minorities. The students’ mentor for the program’s first year in 2012 was George Sanchez, vice dean for diversity at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
Tim Gustafson, associate professor of English and American studies and ethnicity at USC Dornsife, serves as mentor for the new group.
“This is serious, the fact that I’m even going to college,” Hernandez said. “No one in my family has ever gone to college. I had huge expectations, but with everything going on with the hurricane, I was feeling pretty low when I went to the interview. I thought, ‘I’m so close. But I don’t feel like myself. I’m probably not going to get it.’ ”
Self-doubt aside, the experience in which Hernandez weathered the storm and its aftermath made him a perfect Posse scholar.
In the program, the most promising students in New York public schools are invited to join a “posse,” a small group that participates in an eight-month, precollegiate training program that builds team skills and serves as a social support system once students arrive at college. The students are awarded four-year, full-tuition scholarships to attend one of 38 universities or colleges partnered with The Posse Foundation.
Students consider their Posse cohorts to be family. They are part of a close-knit community, each relying on one another for comfort and support. Since Hurricane Sandy, Hernandez has discovered a thing or two about community building. He was part of a community that pulled itself up by the bootstraps. He also worked as a team with his neighbors, who helped one another, he said.
Hernandez was overcome with gratitude and humility when teachers in his Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies and strangers alike offered his family towels, blankets, meals and food for their cat, Tiga.
“It showed me what it means to be a part of a community,” he said. “You never really know you have a community until you go through a disaster like this. My community came to life.”
Velez, a clerk at the New York City Department of Housing, had raised him to be independent.
“My mom is the strongest, hardest-working person I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing,” he said. “It was hard to open up and say we need help. It was a major growing experience.”
There are other aspects of Hernandez’s life that make him a standout student. While caring for his family, Hernandez kept excellent grades and wrote The Tale of Timmy Two Chins, a short film about a youth’s struggle with his weight and attempt to find self-worth.
Through Scenarios USA — a nonprofit bringing together high school students and Hollywood filmmakers to create social change — Hernandez wrote a screenplay based on his own experiences as a 300-pound teenager in high school.
“In the movie, my [character’s] mom is quoted saying you can be the most handsome man in the world, but if you don’t see the value in yourself, no one else will.” he said. “You need one ally in life and that ally is yourself.”
Showtime and HBO have broadcast the short film, which has also been shown in film festivals.
Hernandez, who lost about 40 pounds, is graduating this month as his high school valedictorian. He arrives at USC Dornsife in August as an undecided major.
“I am over the moon,” Hernandez said. “I wake up every day smiling.”
He said he recently came upon baby photos of himself in which his little fingers appear to be displaying the Trojan Fight On sign.
“I’m telling you, I was born a Trojan,” he said. “It’s in my blood.”
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