BRISTOL – This fall Stanley Cardona will start his freshman year at Trinity College. With a full scholarship, he plans to study economics. He considers it the third phase of his life so far.
“First was being homeless, always being uncertain,” he said. “The second was being stable and having a support system whenever I needed it. The third one is going to be a lot of independence. I’m nervous but excited.”
A recent graduate of Bristol Central High School, Cardona was the Boys & Girls Club of Bristol Family Center’s 2019 Youth of the Year, and received the A.C.E. (Accepting the Challenge of Excellence) of the Year Award from the Bristol Exchange Club and the Connecticut District Exchange Club. He is currently in the running for the National Exchange Club honor.
At 18 years old, he has come a long way from a childhood mostly spent in the Bronx, in a series of apartments and homeless shelters.
“My mother and father didn’t make good decisions with their money,” he said. “They would spend it on drugs or cigarettes or whatever. There was never a lot of money in the home for us.”
At one point, he and his two older siblings were put into foster care, because his 16 year old sister was in a relationship with a man in his 40s. “My mom knew about it and allowed it, until DCF [the New York State Office of Child and Family Services] was made aware of it by someone in the shelter,” he recalled.
Through it all, he was able to stay in the same school from second through 10th grade and even keep up his grades. “Academically, I tried my best,” he said. “There were a couple of times when I couldn’t focus enough to go to school, so I just stayed home, but I kept up pretty well for the most part.”
Then in 2016, his father died unexpectedly from liver failure, the result of excessive drinking. The family’s lease was in his name so they were kicked out of their apartment. That meant more time in a homeless shelter. That December, his mother decided to go to New Britain for three days to see her parents and extended family.
“I told her it was a bad idea because of shelter policy,” Cardona said. “You can only stay out for a day or two, then they assume you have a place to stay. So once she came back they called her to the office and said she had to be out in the next couple of hours.”
She decided to move the family to Connecticut for a fresh start. After a few weeks staying with an uncle in New Britain, they ended up at St. Vincent DePaul Mission in Bristol.
“For the first three months I didn’t go to any school, so I called DCF [the Connecticut Department of Children and Families] on my mom,” Cardona said. “She was refusing to put me in school. Even though I kept bringing it up, she kept putting it off. So because of the threat of me being taken away again, she signed me up for New Britain High.”
He lasted one day there. “In the Bronx I went to high school with a few hundred kids, and New Britain High has a few thousand kids. It was just crazy and I kept getting lost. It was overwhelming so I just refused to do that,” he said.
Cardona transferred to Bristol Central High School, which he found more to his liking. But as a sophomore, not knowing anyone and still living in a shelter, the St. Vincent DePaul staff suggested he start going to the Boys & Girls Club to socialize more.
He really took to the club and became a regular volunteer. “Over time I started talking with people there and being able to express myself in ways I just couldn’t before,” he said. “It made me feel like I belonged more than I did with my own family.” He also was accepted into the United Way of West Central Connecticut’s Walsh Summer Work Experience program.
However, there were more family problems to come. By November of 2017, his mother had gotten married to a man she met at the shelter and decided they would all move out to an apartment in Plainville. That meant Cardona would have to switch schools again. So he started asking people he knew at the Boys & Girls Club and the United Way if anyone could take him in.
That’s where the Carmelich family came into the picture. Kim Carmelich, who worked for the United Way then, knew Cardona slightly and was hearing other people in town sing his praises.
“I kept on hearing about this amazing young man who lived at the homeless shelter and was on the honor roll, and how all the teachers and the guidance counselors were advocating for him to have a spot in the summer work experience program. They kept talking about his positive outlook despite his life situation and how he was just really, really smart,” she said.
The Carmelichs, who have three sons, had an extra room available. They had tried being foster parents to a teenager in the past but it didn’t work out, “so we were a little bit wary,” she said.
She decided to talk it over with her husband, Rich, who works in the Plainville public schools. Their first instinct was to introduce Cardona to some of the school staff there, to reassure him that it was a good school system.
“Stanley said ‘you don’t understand. We’ll lose this Plainville apartment in a couple of months and we’ll be homeless again.’ And that’s what happened with his mother. So he would have had to be there from December until March, and then he would have moved to New Britain, so then it would have been his third school in one year,” she said.
They discussed it with their children, including their oldest son Ellis, who is the same age as Cardona and knew him from school. They all agreed to take him in.
The catch was his mother had to agree. Cardona doubted that she would. She had previously refused to let him go live with a cousin, insisting “I gave birth to you, I’ve raised you. You’re not going to live anywhere unless it’s with me,” he recalled.
He spent weeks arguing with her, before she finally gave in. So the Carmelichs welcomed him into their home on Dec. 4, 2017.
“I consider Stanley my son now, so we have four boys,” said Kim Carmelich, who is currently chief financial officer and operations director at Bristol Preschool Child Care Center. “He knows he has a permanent home to come to from college on weekends and during the summer.”
There have been a few hitches along the way. The Carmelichs were not his legal guardians. His mother signed a letter granting them permission to make most education and medical decisions for him, but some things still needed her approval, which wasn’t always easy to get.
Now that he is legally an adult, things should go easier for him, Carmelich said. “He can depend on himself, which is good because most of the time he makes really good choices. He was taking AP classes and a college level physics course last year. He was on the honor roll the whole time, the National Honor Society, National Spanish Honor Society, lots and lots of things. And never once did I ever have to say ‘is your homework done?’ He just did it all on his own.”
He now works at Journey Home in Hartford, an organization working to end homelessness, and is a youth representative for the 100 Day Challenge, which is a regional initiative to end youth homelessness.
“Stanley sets goals and he does everything he needs to do to meet those goals,” Carmelich continued. “He works so hard. That hasn’t been something he has witnessed in his life, he just has his own internal system of right and wrong, and what the world should look like. It’s really pretty inspiring.”
Susan Corica can be reached at 860-973-1802 or firstname.lastname@example.org.