SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Fernando Marquez has never felt safer than he does at the Hanna Boys Center in Sonoma County. It’s a residential school on a beautiful, pastoral campus, dotted with old oaks. Hanna is a healing place for troubled boys, and Fernando had a lot of healing to do.
“I never been able to say that I’m going to be successful until I got here and I started seeing how many doors opened,” he told us when we visited him recently.
“I think he’s maintained a 4.0, if not every semester, then pretty much every semester,” said one of his mentors, Trisha Goodwin. “He’s first in his class.”
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Fernando was failing in school before he came to Hanna. “I thought I was going to be dead before 18,” he said, while describing how he decided to move all the way from Sun Valley neighborhood of Los Angeles to a place he’d never heard of.
The gang activity was fierce in Fernando’s neighborhood. Four people he knew were killed; one friend was only 14 years old.
But the trouble started at home. His father was in and out of jail. When he was home, he’d beat his wife. Many a night, Fernando would hear her crying.
The most frightening incident happened when Fernando was in 3rd grade. He was in the car with his father near the laundromat next to their apartment home, when federal officers in black cars surrounded them, holding up their badges. “My dad threw the keys at me and told me to lock myself in the car and then he jumped (onto) the hood of his car, and jumped the fence, and ran and he left me,” remembered Fernando. “I didn’t know what to do. I was in shock and all the cops left and I was actually left there by myself.”
His father is in Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas now for drug trafficking.
“He just continually says he doesn’t want to grow up to be anything like his dad,” said Leslie Petersen, another one of Fernando’s mentors. “It’s pretty heartbreaking.”
“I learned from his mistakes,” is the way Fernando put it. “I know he’s not a bad guy, he just made bad choices and that’s impacted me a lot.”
His mother was left to support three kids by cleaning houses, and money was always short; finances a constant worry.
Fernando has an undying appreciation and love for his hard-working mom, who became “his dad and his mom.” But nothing she did could protect him from the dangers outside their door.
The pressure on Fernando from gangs was constant. “There were a lot of people approaching me asking me if I wanted to be a part of that, if I needed protection,” he said. “It was scary walking home from school because I pass all those people on the block and them just looking at you makes you nervous … I was always looking over my shoulder walking through my streets and I couldn’t be there anymore.”
It all began to pile up on Fernando. “Going to school was just, like, me constantly thinking about what was going on at home … I’d think about how my dad wouldn’t be around, my mom was struggling with money … I kind of gave up. I didn’t have any hope at all… It was just this dark, dark hole and I felt like I could never get out of it. “
“He will totally tell you that he expected to be a failure,” said Petersen. “He said, that’s what people from my neighborhood do. We fail.”
He finally talked to a counselor at school, who suggested Hanna Boys Center. Fernando’s mom was enthusiastic. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to be anyone if I stayed (in my old neighborhood)” Fernando said. “So I came here, Hanna Boys Center, and it was the right choice for me.”
It was a totally different environment from the one he grew up in. It was pastoral, quiet, and safe. Fernando laughed at his initial reaction. “I was like, Sonoma? Is that like another country?”
But at Hanna, there were new opportunities – not just academically, but in every aspect of his new life. When we visited, he was in the middle of basketball season and an enthusiastic member of the team.
Goodwin, who helps students transition into the working world, spelled out some of Fernando’s new experiences: “The ability to play on a sports team, the ability to receive an honor certificate from his principal, to be honored by the county as athlete of the year, scholar athlete.”
His grades climbed to a 3.79 GPA, his social skills improved, he got a job working on campus, and college became a realistic goal. “Those are things he never thought possible,” said Petersen, who got to know Fernando on the basketball team bus as they would travel to away games.
He’s shared a lot of his story with her, including his constant concern about his mother, who has developed carpal tunnel syndrome and cannot work. “He’s always worried about his mom. He will work in the summer and he will send her money,” Petersen said. “It’s truly a continual stress for him.”
Petersen also saw how hard it is for Fernando to be away from his mother. “He’ll say, ‘I can’t even help her carry in the groceries.’” Petersen comforts him by telling him that he is making things easier for his mother because he is successful now at school, and she does not need to worry. “His mom means so much to him and I think it’s very important to him to not only do this for him, but also to help her,” she said.
“She’s all you could ever ask for in a mom,” Fernando said with affection. “She’s done everything for me through the ups and downs; she’s been there for me. Everything, she’s been through, she manages to keep a smile on her face, and having her do that really motivates me to keep going.”
At Hanna, Fernando learned something important about himself and his potential. “It taught me that … I’m a strong person and I’ve gone through a lot of things and have overcome struggles that, you know, not many people can say they’ve overcome,” He says that with a new pride.
Going to college is his next big step. He knows that will change his life even more, and his family’s as well.