Memories for Black History Month: Growing up on Staten Island

Sep 29, 2022

Each year during Black History Month I reflect on the struggles I faced, and the hope that I was given, growing up on Staten Island.

I was born in the Bronx to a family in turmoil. We soon moved to Staten Island to escape an abusive stepfather, and this is where I lived through my formative years. The oldest of eight children, my siblings and I relied on our mother who was always a pillar of strength and love in our lives.

When I was young and struggling, I received invaluable gifts that helped me rise above my circumstances. Those gifts were people. Through my teenage years, I met people who poured themselves into me so that I could choose the right path. They included teachers, Boy Scout leaders, and family members. These human gifts also included officers and staff at The Salvation Army Corps down the street from where I lived. Its officers and programs, including The Salvation Army music program, church, and community services, supported me and lifted me up. When I was 19 my mother died of cancer, and I soon faced raising my two youngest brothers and sister. It would have been impossible had we not received the gift of The Salvation Army in our lives at that time.

There’s an expression that goes “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” but I believe this advice is defeating because it suggests we are alone and must deal with life’s challenges by ourselves. What I learned from The Salvation Army is that even if you feel alone, it doesn’t mean you are alone. From the moment I found The Salvation Army, they helped me pull myself up but never by myself. That is an invaluable lesson that I have paid back a multitude of times, and continue to pay back, by helping others who feel alone, afraid, or overwhelmed.

Through these gifts in my life, I came to understand that we have so much more in common with those around us than we have differences. We share fears, concerns, struggles, and self-doubt. Sometimes they are so powerful that they set us back or stop us. But we also share hopes and dreams which can ignite transformation. Each of us has the power to see the possibilities, which, in turn, can impact the trajectory of our lives.

Growing up I dreamed of becoming an oceanographer or a marine biologist, but as I got older, I realized there was only one vocation for me: to become an officer in The Salvation Army. It was a life-affirming choice and I have never looked back. It brought me home, to my roots, and has given me a sense of purpose and strength and the gifts and hope I’ve received can be shared with others. I hold the officers and staff under my command accountable to do the same. I help make them feel special, whole, and worthy so that they can do the same for those in need. I tell them to pour themselves into others’ lives.

My desire is that hope itself becomes colorblind, not just during Black History Month – but year-round. The Salvation Army brings hope and helps anyone – without discrimination. We are responsible for bringing hope to people regardless of their ethnicity, skin color, national origin, religion, or sexual identify. It is, therefore, my honor to serve anyone in need.

The need we see in our communities is so great that we simply can’t do it alone. I urge you to give of yourself to someone in need. You can help get them through the day and you might even save their life. Please consider volunteering, donating, and making a personal connection. You and your community will be the better for it.

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