LAKEWOOD RANCH — Lentz Laurent stayed home sick from his Port-au-Prince, Haiti, school on Jan. 12, 2010. He was in bed in a room he shared with three others that Tuesday afternoon when his bed began to shake.
Thinking it was his younger cousin, trying to wake him, he called out, trying to get his cousin to stop. But the shaking didn’t stop. And soon, the ceiling was falling.
Laurent didn’t know it at the time, but he was experiencing one of the worst natural disasters in Haiti’s history. One that left between 200,000 and 300,000 dead and millions more homeless.
“I thought the world was ending,” Laurent said.
Laurent, a Lakewood Ranch High School senior, knows what heroism looks like. For him it comes in the form of a U.S. Marine who pulled him from the rubble two days after the earthquake. He never saw the face of the Marine who saved him that day, but his rescuer and the other Marines who cared for him in the weeks after inspired Laurent to want to join their ranks — to want to serve others the way he’s been served.
When Laurent arrived in the United States a year later, his goal was to serve this country as a Marine. As he works through his final year in high school he still has a few hurdles — and they will take more than his personal determination.
The moment Laurent realized it was an earthquake shaking the floors and the walls of the room he was in, he tried to make his way out of the bedroom and eventually out of the house. Unsteady, he tripped several times. He was almost out when the ceiling fell on him leaving a deep gash in his leg. The bone didn’t break, but blood was gushing and Laurent was trapped. A neighbor next door came to help. The neighbor pulled Laurent’s leg free from the rubble when another piece of ceiling fell, crushing the neighbor’s head and killing him.
Laurent froze. Another chunk of ceiling fell and everything went black.
When Laurent woke up, he was in a makeshift hospital, with U.S. military — Marines, Navy, Cost Guard — all around him. He can’t imagine it, but he was told he was under rubble for two days before he was found.
The Marines lifted his spirits in the aftermath.
“They took care of me,” he said.
They gave him his first pair of Nike shoes, they fed him, helped nurse him back to health and provided a sense of stability when Laurent’s whole world had fallen apart. Laurent was in the hospital for two weeks before his uncle found him.
A year after the earthquake, he took a plane to Florida, to live with his mom, who was already legally living in the United States, working to pay for Laurent’s education in a private Catholic school in Haiti. She had been saving money to bring Laurent to the United States when the earthquake hit.
A murky legal status
Laurent is still struggling to become a United States citizen. When he arrived in the United States in 2011, he came with some papers, he said. He and his mother went to see a lawyer, who was supposed to help him become a citizen.
It appears the lawyer bungled the paperwork, Laurent said.
It’s not clear exactly what happened, Laurent is fluent in English now but only knew a few words when he arrived. His mother speaks broken English and was working at minimum wage jobs so finding translators was too costly.
A few more lawyers later, and the issue still hasn’t been sorted out, even as their expenses mount.
“We have no status right now. We talked to some lawyers,” Laurent said. “We just don’t know yet.”
Thomas Goldman, a lawyer that Laurent and his mother had worked with, agreed to talk to the Bradenton Herald about the family’s case, but was having trouble tracking down the notes and files he had for the family.
That only further compounds Laurent’s issue.
Laurent doesn’t have a driver’s license, he can’t enroll in a traditional college after he leaves high school.
He can’t join the Marines.
“He wants to go but he can’t. I cannot find a way,” said his mother, Sultana Laurent. Sultana Laurent has lived in the Bradenton area since 2007, when she moved here to work and be close to her brother. “We visit many lawyers but they all say the same thing: Just wait. Nothing worked.”
After speaking to the school board, Laurent’s story struck a chord with board members, district staff and Superintendent Diana Greene.
It’s not uncommon for the district to provide assistance to those who may need legal papers, staff attorney Mitchell Teitelbaum said.
Because of student privacy laws, Teitelbaum said he could not specifically discuss Laurent’s case, but said there is a process to try to help students find assistance in cases like this.
“The district will assist, when possible, to direct the individuals to attorneys who can assist at no charge,” Teitelbaum said.
Obtaining a Social Security card often requires legal assistance in getting the right documents and filling out the right paperwork.
But that hasn’t stopped Laurent from trying. He took three years of JROTC at Lakewood Ranch, leaving the program this year, to dual enroll in the auto collision repair program at Manatee Technical College. Dual enrollment in high school offers him a chance to get the skills he needs to help pay for his and his mother’s expenses while he deals with his murky legal status.
He still works out with the local Marine recruiter, preparing for the physical exam. He still plans to become a Marine when he graduates high school.
And the Marines would welcome him with open arms, said recruiter Sgt. Gustavo DeBritto.
“He’s such a great asset,” DeBritto said. “He motivates the guys that are already enlisted.”
Laurent needs permanent residency status to enlist as a Marine, DeBritto said. Once he completes boot camp, he could then become a citizen.
“We’re hoping someday, something works out,” DeBritto said.
That’s what Laurent is hoping, too.
He just hasn’t quite figured out how to do it yet.
And he feels he hasn’t been helped by the various lawyers he and his mother have met with, all of them providing options that Laurent says he doesn’t consider options, including being sent back to Haiti.
A lifetime of struggle
In Haiti, Laurent grew up poor. His uncle worked in the nation’s capital, as a police officer. Laurent compared it to the SWAT teams in the United States. He never knew his father.
His family didn’t have much, but neighbors were always willing to lend a hand and share, Laurent said.
When he moved here, he didn’t crawl far out of poverty. Laurent remembers feeling guilty when his mother bought him a $300 computer, to help him with his schoolwork. It’s so old it doesn’t work anymore. Even at the time, when his mother was working a steady minimum wage job in an assisted living facility, he knew it was too much for her to afford.
In his junior year at Lakewood Ranch, he tried out for and made the cheerleading squad. He wanted to show his school spirit at the football games. But he couldn’t afford the uniform or other expenses associated with the sport. Instead of asking for money, he quit.
That’s when he found out about the school’s mascot, Klumpy the Mustang: The school pays for and provides the uniform. He’s in his second year now of lifting school spirit as Klumpy.
In June, Laurent’s mother lost her job. Her five day a week, 3 to 11 p.m. shifts had slowly been eroding, down to two days a week, three hours a day at the worst, before his mother came home in tears one day, with no job at all. The two still don’t know what happened, even though they called together and tried to get an answer.
At at school board meeting earlier this year, Laurent was one of 13 seniors who spoke to the school board, sharing their stories and aspirations for the future.
Laurent’s mother couldn’t be there. She was interviewing for a job. She didn’t get it.
“She’ll get something,” he said. “She’ll get something.”
A sense of gratitude
Sultana Laurent maintains she was fired for no reason and that she’s applied for many jobs, but hasn’t gotten one yet.
Despite what he’s been through, Laurent maintains that every bad thing happens along with a good thing.
“In life, you’re always going to see bad things,” he said.
Although she couldn’t talk about the emotions she felt in 2010, his mother agreed with Laurent’s sentiment.
“It’s a miracle he is here,” she said.
Laurent is making the most of the bad thing that happened in 2010. In addition to being Klumpy, Laurent is involved with the French club at school — French and Creole are his native languages — he is on the powerlifting team, is working toward a certificate from MTC and is involved with the theater.
He recently participated in the school’s performances of “Shrek: The Musical” where Laurent will play a guard, a knight and a dancer and perform as a singer.
He’s one of those students, said Principal Craig Little, everybody knows his name. Rarely does a morning go by where Laurent doesn’t pop his head in the office to say hi. He’s once of the hardest workers at the school, Little said, and his sense of appreciation reverberates with the rest of the student population.
“It makes us take a step back and really appreciate what we have,” Little said.
Laurent isn’t sure what his future holds. As his senior friends apply to college and make plans, he’s at a standstill. He hopes that a lawyer will be able to figure out what when wrong and how to fix it, but he’s now wary.
Ultimately, he wants the “American dream,” a job helping others, a family, a home in the United States. He would like to be able to give back to Haiti one day. His mother has always wanted to run an orphanage, and he would like to start one in her name.
“I want to be able to stand on my own, and help others,” he said.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter@MeghinDelaney
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