I was a homeless and hungry child until these miracles came into my life

To: Those who are considering becoming a mentor

From: Christopher Rivero (As told to Lauren Brill)

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To those who are considering becoming a mentor,

I am so incredibly thankful for all the miracles that came into my life.

Without so many miracles, I would be dead right now. Maybe, if I were lucky, I would be in jail.

My mom is from Spain and my dad is from Cuba, but I was born in Tampa, Florida. Early on, I lived with my mother. Even though we were poor, my mother was a rock star parent. She worked hard as a nanny and housekeeper for a very wealthy family. All-day, she washed their clothes, cleaned their house and took care of their kids, only to come home and do it all over again for my brother and me. My mom signed us up for sports and never missed our games. Our Christmas tree was always drowning in gifts. Come hell or high water, if my brother or I needed something, she would find a way to get it done. 

However, when I was ten years old, the family my mother worked for moved and everything changed. My mom lost her job and became an alcoholic. No one knew what was going on because my older brother ended up moving in with my grandparents. So, it was just my mother and me. 

Chris and his mom

There would be times where my mom would go missing for a few days, leaving me without food. Sometimes, I would come home from school and I would be locked out because she was passed out drunk. When she had seizures, I was the one to call 911.

One day my mother told me we were getting evicted. She said I should head over to my friend’s house, stay there and wait for her to come back in a few days. When I went to my friend’s house, his mother didn’t know anything about watching me. So, I returned to our apartment, climbed up the gutter, hopped through the window and stayed there. I figured my mom would be back soon.

Every day, I’d rush home from school, thinking, “This will be the day she comes back.”  

But she never came back.

For ten years, I didn’t have much of a relationship with my mother. She was sick, homeless and repeatedly admitted to the hospital. Extremely thin and losing her hair, whenever I saw my mom, it was traumatizing, as she was so far gone from the Wonder Woman I knew as a young child. 

With my mom mostly out of my life, at 11 years old, I was in survival mode. I started asking older dudes in the neighborhood to help me out and get me something to eat. First, they gave me a little money for some McDonald’s.

Soon after, they said, “Look, man, I can’t give you any more money, but you do what you can with this ‘stuff.’ Bring me back this much money and the rest is yours.”

That’s how and why I got into illegal activity. I was just a hungry kid, trying to survive.

Eventually, I couldn’t stay in that apartment by myself and I asked my friend, Leonard, if I could stay with him once in a while. Too embarrassed to tell him what was going on, I often slept in a dugout at a nearby baseball field on the days I wasn’t with him.

That’s how and why I got into illegal activity. I was just a hungry kid, trying to survive.

My very first miracle came when Leonard’s mom, Andrea Daley,  realized I was homeless and made me stay with them permanently. She bought me clothes and took care of me. When I was sad or angry, she consoled me. All the kids in my neighborhood had a pass to a local water park and she bought me one, so I wouldn’t feel left out. I don’t know how she did it, as she was a single mother herself, but she was like a mother to me. She made me feel safe and loved. 

Despite Andrea’s efforts, I still got in trouble. Trouble was all I knew.

In school, I got expelled from eighth grade because I frequently got into fights. Violent and regularly involved in criminal activity, at 12 years old, I assumed I’d ultimately end up in prison just like many other members of my family.  

Then, more miracles came into my life.

All this time, my dad didn’t know what was going on because my mother pushed him away. Only by luck, he found out. After two years of living with Andrea and Leonard, my father told me to come live with him.

Around the same time, I started high school, where I was looking forward to playing football. Football had been the only constant in my life – a safe space and a regular schedule. I loved it so much that I paid for my own $150 entry fee and pads through the years. In youth football, I didn’t need good grades to play.

Through a non-profit program called Play It Smart, our high school football program had an academic coach named Kent Wilson. During my freshman year, Coach Kent saw me screaming at a girl whose mother owed me money. Coach Kent pulled both of us aside and told the girl that if I didn’t apologize to tell him. He then told me to see him in his office the next day. 

That’s when Coach Kent started to look into my background. In our meeting the next day, after we spoke about the argument with the girl, he wrote this number on a teal sticky note.

He said, “You see what this number is?”

I said, “Yeah, it’s a 0.5.”

He responded, “That’s your GPA.”

I was like, “OK, so?”

He explained, “You can’t play football with this GPA.”

Immediately, I started dry heaving. Football was all I had. So, from that day forward, I began to put in some effort. For the remainder of high school, I got straight A’s.  

Throughout the next four years, Coach Kent told me that I was smart and special, because school came so easy to me. He gave me confidence in the sense that if I had a problem, I knew I could go to him. It made me feel like neither my background nor my family history mattered. There was someone there that would help me with whatever I needed.

But as my life started to take a turn, my father went to prison for a year.

My dad didn’t want me to get a job and he wanted me to stay out of trouble.  

He used to say, “As long as you do well in school and you play a sport, you don’t have to work. If you want to go on a date or want this or that, I got you.”

My dad was doing what he did because his full-time job wasn’t enough. He knew I needed a car and money to pay for college. So, he was getting involved with all this illegal activity to save my life.

When he went to jail, that was the moment I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. I knew so many people who got in trouble and the world simply viewed them as criminals. In reality, they were really amazing people who made the wrong decisions for all the right reasons. Those are the types of people I wanted to help.

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However, I still needed many more miracles to make it happen. Sure enough, another one soon came into my life. 

While my dad was in prison, I was having trouble finding a stable place to live. Tracy Donovan, the mother of my friend Seth, told me to stay with her and her family. She was the first person to teach me about God and she also helped me with life skills like finances and addressing an envelope properly. 

While I was with Ms. Tracy and her family, I received a letter inviting me to attend the National Young Leaders Conference in Washington, D.C. I was the only one in my school invited, but I was about to throw the letter away because it was expensive. Ms. Tracy saw the envelope and asked me about the program. I told her what it was but I said to forget it. She refused to let me lose this opportunity. Instead, she orchestrated a fundraiser through her church and took me shopping for suits. 

Her determination to get me to Washington taught me not to make excuses in life. There is a way through every obstacle. She also taught me to believe in unconditional love and kindness. I never thought that people who didn’t know me would give me money. When you grow up in such violence and turmoil, that is all you expect. My life was always every man for himself. When I received those donations, it helped me see the good in the world. 

Plus, the conference was a surreal experience. I flew to Washington, D.C., saw snow for the first time, walked the halls of the Capitol and sat on the floor of Congress. The trip broadened my horizons and made me realize the possibilities that existed outside of my neighborhood.

When I returned, I continued to get in less and less trouble.

For a long time, I was so reckless with my life,

There were moments where I was like, “I am dying tonight.”

I had bullets graze my t-shirts and guns pointed at my head.

As more and more people stepped up to help me, I moved further and further away from that life. Seeing how much people cared about me made me start to care more about myself.  

Chris with Ms. Tracy and her son Zack

In my senior year, I hit yet another roadblock. I got injured and I didn’t have a great season in football. As a result, I didn’t receive a single offer for an athletic scholarship. Coach Kent set me up at a college recruiting fair. That’s where I met the coaches at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio. They told me I would get to play right away. While John Carroll didn’t offer athletic scholarships, they were able to put together both an academic scholarship and a financial aid package so I could go to college almost for free, which was great. But once I got there, I realized there were still thousands of dollars of expenses: flying home, tuition increases, school supplies and basic living necessities. 

Thankfully, more miracles came my way. 

When I went home for Thanksgiving during my freshman year, I told my Uncle Sebastien that I was thinking about transferring closer to home to a more competitive football program. My uncle didn’t believe that was the reason, so he kept prying. Finally, I admitted that it was also too expensive. 

Before I went back to school that weekend, he tracked me down at a Chili’s restaurant in Tampa, where I was eating with another family. He asked me to come outside and wrote me a blank check. Then, he told me to fill in the balance on my tuition. Also, he said he would cover any tuition balances for the remainder of my four years. 

I was completely blown away, as he explained that he did not want me to quit because of money and said that he and my Aunt Carolynn believed that I was destined for great things. 

When I went back to school, I worked even harder because I did not want to waste their money and I did not want to let them down. 

After four years of college, I went to law school. Now, I have my own practice where I do criminal defense and civil police brutality cases. I have defended kids in similar circumstances that I was once in and parents who committed crimes for the same reason my father once did.

At 33 years old, I am happy to be alive. Financially stable as a successful lawyer with a beautiful wife, I no longer am just surviving, but I can actually say that I am living.

Daily, monthly, quarterly and yearly, so many stars had to align just for me to have a shot in life. I had and needed many more miracles than the ones I named in this letter. Each miracle showed me that the ultimate form of love is giving to others who have nothing to offer you in return. That’s one of the reasons I try to help people every day. It’s also why I am writing this letter to encourage you to do the same.  

So, if you have the chance to offer guidance and support to a child, do it. Be consistent. It won’t always be easy, but if you show someone you care about them, it will carry a lot of weight.  

Every child deserves a chance in life. Every child deserves and needs miracles.

And for kids who come from neighborhoods or situations like mine, our miracles start with our mentors. 

You, too, can help save a life.  

Christopher Rivero
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