A stable home leads to the Ivy League

Eric’s parents built their Habitat home a decade ago because they believed stability was central to their children’s success. Next month, Eric is leaving that home, having earned a scholarship to Cornell University.

Eric’s hometown of Immokalee, Florida, couldn’t be more different from where he is headed. Immokalee is a community largely made up of farm laborers, most of them immigrants and few with high school educations. Prestigious Cornell is an Ivy League institution in Ithaca, New York.

Still, Eric’s acceptance to Cornell makes perfect sense. He is a great student who started his own business and tutors second-graders. While much of Immokalee comes and goes with the growing season, Eric’s family owns their Habitat house, a stable place where the 17-year-old has been able to concentrate on being a great student and kid. “My parents knew how important it was to have a permanent house,” he says.

A better path Eric’s parents, Valerio and Juana, were just teenagers themselves when they came to the United States from Guatemala in search of a better life. They got jobs picking tomatoes, work not for the faint of heart or weak in body, Eric says. “When I am having a hard time in school, I think of everything my parents have gone through. Then I think, ‘never mind.’”

After marrying, Valerio and Juana settled in Immokalee, a leading producer of tomatoes and melons in the U.S. Many Immokalee families work for agriculture companies that also provide rental housing. From fall to spring, the families pick produce in Immokalee and around Collier County. The rest of the year, they travel up the East Coast as the produce ripens, known as following the crops.

In the process, some families have to pull their kids out of school early and enroll them late. “It is hard for the kids when they come back,” Eric says.

Eric’s dad used to follow the crops and send money back home. In 2007, he and Juana partnered with to build a home for their five children. It meant an affordable mortgage for the family and a place to live that wasn’t tied to their employer.

Habitat Collier County has built nearly 700 homes and four subdivisions in Immokalee. While Eric’s story is inspirational and noteworthy, says Habitat Collier County executive director Lisa Lefkow, it is not uncommon for the kids who grew up in those homes to go on to do great things. And for good reason, she says.

“They grow up in a stable home with a quiet place to do homework,” Lefkow says. “They don’t suffer from asthma because their apartment has mold. They are able to go to school, and to the same school, all year long.

“When kids get into a Habitat home, they are moving forward on a better path,” Lefkow adds. “I could spend three days telling you stories of our kids who have gone on to become successful. Many go into the service. Many go on to college. Eric’s neighbor is at Columbia University.”

Eric’s story Eric doesn’t remember much about moving into his home. He was only 7. “I do remember painting the walls, and that was really fun because we painted them yellow. I liked it because I like to paint. It has been a good house to grow up in. It has ample space, and I just like the feeling of the house.”

For as long as he can remember, Eric has looked at college as his avenue to a better life. “I didn’t really have a Plan B,” he says. He focused on his studies, particularly math and science. His sophomore year, he and dozens of classmates partnered with the local vo-tech school to create a food business called Taste of Immokalee. The business makes six products, including salsa and barbecue sauces.

“We are influenced by the many different Hispanic cultures living in our town,” Eric says. The products currently are being sold in 18 Publix groceries and 13 small chain stores. All profits help pay for the participating students to go to college.

Eric was excited when he got a scholarship to study hotel administration at Cornell, his first choice of colleges. “When I got to visit the campus, it just felt like I was home,” he says.

Even so, Eric talks about returning to Immokalee someday to help the community where he grew up. “We have organizations that try to come and help, but they don’t know what it is like to grow up here, what programs are really needed.” Eric says. “If I become successful and have resources, I definitely want to come back and help in any way I can.”

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