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Warmest regards: Working hard to get ahead

Published July 20. 2019 06:11AM

By Pattie Mihalik

When my friend Charlotte asked me to write a story about someone she calls “determined and inspirational,” I was happy to oblige.

As head of our local St. Vincent de Paul chapter, Charlotte sees thousands of people who come there for help.

So many people are hurting financially. Most need the basics some take for granted — food, clothing and shelter.

In addition to providing those basic needs, St. Vincent de Paul offers scholarships to those willing to work hard to change their life.

“The scholarships are a hand up, not a hand out. They are only awarded to those with the will and the drive to change their life around,” Charlotte said.

Marie Lucie, a young immigrant from Haiti, is one who was awarded a scholarship.

Charlotte told me I would find her inspirational in overcoming many challenges while she completed the culinary course at a local vocational institute.

During the interview with Marie and her husband, I learned Charlotte was right.

They came from Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world.

Marie and Hans struggled to cope with the hardships of their native country.

With the impoverished country still unable to recover from a major 2010 earthquake, Hurricane Matthew added to that devastation, making it even harder to survive.

Even having basic things like food and clean water was a challenge. “We vowed we were going to do whatever it took to build a better life,” said Marie. “We were motivated and willing to sacrifice — whatever it took.”

One major sacrifice was leaving their 6-month old daughter behind with Han’s mother and going to Jamaica to find work.

For three years they took any job they could get before being able to make the leap to come to America.

They went to West South Beach to live by the relative who sponsored them to come here. But rents were too high and it was hard to get a job there.

“Every time I applied there was always someone with more experience that got the job,” said Hans, who was willing to do anything to get by.

When they visited another relative in Southwest Florida, they found the area was a better fit.

“It’s a calm and quiet place with lower rent and more opportunity for those who want to work,” said Marie.

Her husband was hired at a window company, a job that requires getting up at 3 a.m. for his 12-hour shift. But he’s happy to have the job, he says.

By then they had a new baby and Marie was happy to find a job in a nursing home where she could work her hours around child care.

Sometimes it’s a little glitch in life that leads to something better.

When a temporary setback led Marie to have to go to St. Vincent de Paul’s Food Pantry, she saw a sign about scholarships. “I got excited when I saw it because it’s been my dream to be part of a culinary arts program,” she said.

She was even more excited after learning St. Vincent de Paul awarded her a scholarship to attend the culinary arts program at a nearby technical training school. Because the school offers child care and is close to her apartment, it was a perfect fit.

For the past year Marie didn’t just attend culinary classes. She soared through them, becoming a star student.

Not that it was easy.

There was a lot of hard work and sacrifice involved — every single day, as a matter of fact.

Marie attended classes five days a week, worked at part-time jobs, volunteered at church and alternated child care with her husband.

“It was challenging,” she admits, “and I had to keep pushing myself past feeling tired. But I am grateful for the chance.”

An inventive cook who likes to include Haitian and Jamaican foods in her cooking, Marie placed second in a regional culinary arts contest, then went on to win third place during state competition.

That success led to several job offers from area restaurants.

She earned placement in the school’s national honor society, then was honored by being selected as the graduation speaker.

She is a true success story.

My friend Charlotte was right when she said it was a story of resilience and determination.

Marie now works as a chef, becoming the main breadwinner while her husband takes his turn going for technical training.

Both Marie and Hans vow to keep working hard to better themselves and their family.

So I told the happy little story in the paper.

I was surprised at the backlash the story created and even more surprised when many responses were negative.

I was wrong when I thought everyone would be happy to see a hardworking, self-sufficient family asking for nothing but a chance.

One man was upset that a scholarship was given to an immigrant.

“If she’s so great, let her go back to the country she came from,” he said.

Someone else wrote to say, “Another family looking for freebies.”

They are not. That was the point of the story. Nor are they illegal immigrants. They are just two people working hard to build a better life.

Have we become so divisive that we can’t cheer for anyone not born here?

The goal at St. Vincent de Paul is to help people become totally self-sufficient. Marie and her husband were able to do that.

Contact Pattie Mihalik at

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