–By Steven Marin Jr. for FIU Magazine. Marin is a junior majoring in business management and a student in the Honors College.
I experienced a moment in eighth grade that will forever impact my life. I played on a traveling basketball team, and many of my teammates and I came from backgrounds of privilege. We were used to private schools, nice vacations and never worrying about having food on the table or a place to sleep at night. The others came from the inner city and attended public schools. The differences in our backgrounds didn’t matter much as we became friends on the court and off.
On game weekends, those of us with large homes often invited the guys from Overtown to hang out and even spend the night in anticipation of playing early the next morning. On weekdays, our dads (mine was an assistant coach) would offer to drive them home after practice in lieu of their catching a bus. On such occasions, those of us who had everything got a peek into small apartments with few groceries in sight.
One weekend we had a tournament in Tampa, and everyone packed into cars to head north. I was bunking with three others at the Holiday Inn, and one happened to be a boy from the inner city. We went to the room to drop off our bags, and this particular teammate soon lay down on one of the king-sized beds and looked up at the rest of us. “This is heaven,” he said.
His words hit me hard. I was stunned. I texted my dad, “You have no idea what my teammate just told me.” For the first time, I realized just how much I had taken for granted. “This is the real world,” my dad told me a few days later, when I still hadn’t not gotten over the incident. “Use the advantages you have to help others.”
A couple of years later I got together my friends from various high schools to create a nonprofit called 305 United. We completed leadership training and then began organizing activities such as children’s backpack giveaways, Thanksgiving turkey drives and Christmas toy drives. We visited Camillus House and a shelter for battered women.
When I arrived at FIU, I dove into my classes and worked part-time at Smoothie King even as I felt a need to do something bigger, but what? At my dad’s suggestion, I reached out to someone at the top. I requested a meeting with Sandra Gonzalez-Levy, vice president for External Relations, Strategic Communications and Marketing. She took the time to talk to me about Fostering Panther Pride, an FIU program that addresses the special educational, physical and emotional needs of formerly foster and homeless youth enrolled at FIU. She told me about the challenges these students face and what the university is providing for them: housing, job placement, tailored academic advising, mentoring and more.
I had found my project. Soon I was emailing, phoning and visiting an array of people within the community to deliver my impassioned pitch: the parents of my school friends, my father’s business associates, the heads of local companies. I stepped out of my comfort zone—asking for money is not easy!—but I was determined. In the first year, the generosity of those I contacted totaled more than $50,000. Two years later, it has grown to well over $110,000. During that time, I have gotten to know a number of the students who benefit from the program. They are the ones, not I, who deserve recognition. They are the ones who are making the grades and thriving. They are the ones doing the work.