Schenectady County

Homeless Schenectady boy’s story inspires UAlbany scholarship

The University at Albany was so moved by a homeless 11-year-old's story that they've already offered
Nicholas Sovignon, 11, gives his mother Esther Diaz a hug at the City Mission Family Center in Schenectady on Wednesday. The pair have lived at the mission since November of 2014. The Brooklyn-born Nick is excelling at Mekeel Christian Academy and was ...
Nicholas Sovignon, 11, gives his mother Esther Diaz a hug at the City Mission Family Center in Schenectady on Wednesday. The pair have lived at the mission since November of 2014. The Brooklyn-born Nick is excelling at Mekeel Christian Academy and was ...

It started with a story.

A boy and his mother — Nicholas Sovignon, 11, and Esther Diaz — homeless in Brooklyn. They moved from shelter to shelter or lived with family and friends. For three months, they had nowhere to go.

“Nick always said to me everything will be OK, ‘Don’t worry mom,’ ” Diaz said. “He always had something to lift my spirit up.”

Even when they woke up not knowing where they would go to sleep that night, mom and son were driven by a simple goal: Get Nick to school.

“Even when we was homeless I make him go to school, and I’d pick him up,” Diaz said. “After school we think about what happens next, but every day he goes to school.”

“I knew I always had to go to school if I would go to college,” Nick said, sitting beside his mom. “I tried to keep my focus on school.”

The pair moved north from New York City in 2013 to live with a family friend neither of them knew in Schenectady. But that friend was evicted, leaving Nick and his mom once again struggling to find a place to live. Another friend pointed them in the direction of City Mission of Schenectady, which houses and feeds the homeless and helps transition families to stable living situations, and they moved in to the mission on Nov. 18, 2014, and have lived there since.

Story’s next chapter

Nick scored a scholarship to Mekeel Christian Academy in Scotia after going to a pair of Schenectady public schools, and his mom graduates from the mission’s Bridges to Freedom life skills program in January and is working on her GED. Nick attends school every day and is getting straight A’s. Diaz said she feels like a new person, healthy and energetic.

But the story doesn’t end there.

Early last month, City Mission Executive Director Mike Saccocio, when accepting an award at an annual banquet, told a crowd of Capital Region movers and shakers Nick and his mom’s story.

“We were all looking at each other and said we need to do something,” University at Albany Provost James Stellar said of hearing the story at the ceremony. With most of the school’s top brass sitting around the same table, they moved an idea through the university bureaucracy at breakneck speed: Give Nick a four-year, full-tuition scholarship.

Stellar returned to the event stage and invited Saccocio to join him. He told Saccocio and the entire crowd the university officials were so moved by Nick and his mom’s story they wanted to make a commitment to his college education — even if he is in just the sixth grade.

“I was in tears, I was speechless, I couldn’t believe this was happening,” said Denise Cokes, director of the mission’s residential ministries. She has worked with Nick and Diaz since their first night at the mission and was at the banquet last month.

During a weekly Mass later that week, the mission’s leaders shared the good word with Nick and his mom — Diaz no longer had to stress about finding a way to pay for her son to go to college.

Did mom cry? “Yes, I did,” she said.

“That’s the most I ever saw her cry,” Nick said.

“I tell you I am five years younger not worrying about Nick going to college,” she said.

Opportunity arises

And UAlbany — which hosted Nick and his mom on campus Tuesday to present them with a signed scholarship offer and give a tour the campus — hopes to build on their promise to Nick by strengthening their relationship with City Mission.

They haven’t ironed out any specifics, but Stellar said the school is excited about providing students the chance to volunteer or intern at the mission. The two organizations have even talked about the mission being a place for University at Albany students and professors to conduct research or study the issues that many of the mission’s residents face.

The university also hopes that Nick’s story inspires other families in similar situations to set college as a life goal and one that, Stellar said, is attainable regardless of economic circumstance. He said the school strives to keep tuition affordable and provides significant financial aid packages. It also plans to continue to extend its reach into Capital Region communities, Stellar said.

Their commitment to Nick, which Stellar said would evolve over time to meet Nick’s needs, doesn’t end with the scholarship offer. They invited him to come to campus for a summer program and will continue to stay in touch as he progresses through secondary school.

“We want to make him feel welcome here like we are part of his extended family, and then from there we will figure out what he will need,” Stellar said.

As he toured the campus this week, Nick was awed by the dorms and the libraries — he especially liked the different levels of quiet. “Yellow means you can talk but keep it on the down low,” he said.

His best subject in school is history but his interests are wide-reaching. His drive, compassion and thoughtfulness are impressive for an 11-year-old, the adults in his life say.

“When I grow up, I want to either be a pilot, a doctor or a businessman,” Nick said, pausing as an endless world of possibilities passed through his mind. “Or a scholar or a teacher, something that will help others and not just benefit me.”

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