People often ask me where the next generation of leaders will come from. I tell them I know they will be young men and women like Westenley Alcenat.
Wes's fellow students at his Minneapolis high school call him the "kid who always smiles." But the constant optimism and infectious smile he shows now as a teenager weren't always there in the little boy who "grew accustomed to seeing dead bodies and hearing rapes from the neighbor's door."
Wes was one of four extraordinary high school students recently honored at a Children's Defense Fund Minnesota celebration. He grew up in Haiti, where violence and political instability turned playgrounds into battlefields and his childhood into a series of unimaginable horrors. As he says, "I was part of a cycle in which the future seemed grim and hopeless. I witnessed the darkest conditions of poverty, where projects are made of shacks and mud huts, where dreams are nonexistent — a place where hope lies dead and buried by political unrest."
Wes had every reason to feel hopeless. When he was 6, soldiers killed his parents. His grandparents then cared for him, but when they and the rest of his family had to flee the country, Wes was left behind with distant relatives to wait for a visa clearance for what turned out to be four long years. Often lonely and alone, he even survived attempts on his life.
But when Wes was finally cleared to enter the United States and be reunited with his grandparents and other family members, his life took a new turn. He didn't speak English when he arrived and had had very little formal education in Haiti. But thanks to the support of teachers, mentors and his devoted grandparents, he now takes rigorous courses in high school, maintains a 3.2 GPA and counts writers like Richard Wright, Langston Hughes and W.E.B. DuBois among his heroes.
He also writes poetry as a way of expressing his feelings about his past and his hopes for the future. He volunteers at local hospitals and schools working with immigrant and inner city children, and his dream is to pursue a career in health care and return to Haiti or travel to Africa to continue helping other young people who have not yet received the second chance he was given.
In his speech at the celebration, Wes said, "It has always been said that children are the future of our world. But, the very ignorance of our world is the cause of their misery. I stand before you not as the sole recipient but as the ambassador of millions of others like me — some living in Haiti, in Africa, in Asia, in South America and in the United States. I am standing before you as the living metaphor, a reminder of kids that grow up in war zones, of kids that grow up without childhoods; of kids in need of a home, a father or mother; and of kids without futures, unless those of us who have the power to change their lives are willing to take action."
Westenley Alcenat is already standing up, taking action and making a difference. He has already had a lifetime's worth of difficult experiences and lessons, but they have given him wisdom, maturity and the determination to turn a terrible past into a positive future. Too often we hear about teenagers getting into trouble, dropping out of school, becoming involved with drugs, crime, gangs or becoming parents too soon. But we rarely recognize the many young people who do well despite serious obstacles that can stand in the way of even the smallest achievements.
We need to celebrate and support the young people in our communities who are beating the odds every day, and look all around us for bright, inspiring role models like Westenley. More importantly, we must transform a world that places daunting obstacles in the way of millions of children.
Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund.