After painful loss, building a better future
Story and photos by Sandra E. García
Tragedy struck the Paniagua household two years ago.
Sahim, the eldest son, then 16, collapsed at home.
He was unable to be revived.
Later, the family would find that he had suffered a ripped aorta.
His younger brother, Arah, held him as he took his last breath.
Arah was 11 then.
“At that time, I couldn’t think anything through, I didn’t know what to do,” said Arah.
It took time for the young man to feel like himself, and to begin regaining focus.
He found solace in his studies.
“I just wanted to stay focused in school,” he continued. “Because nothing was happening for me, I didn’t know what to do, [but I wanted to] get something out of school.”
Arah began to push himself and began to excel at his school M.S. 218, effectively blocking out anything and everything else but his schoolwork.
Arah also became involved with after-school programs at Alianza Dominicana.
“What motivated me was the struggle of my family,” explained Arah, a self-composed young man who speaks in complete, quiet sentences. “I just wanted to bring something home to make them proud.”
Arah’s hard work led him to be chosen to participate in the People to People program, in which students are afforded the opportunity to travel abroad in order to expand their studies.
Established over 50 years ago, People to People has more than 500,000 alumni.
Maria Paniagua, matriarch of the family, recognizes her son’s own powerful work ethic has brought him the recognition, but she is quick to credit another motivating factor as well.
“Alianza Dominicana has allowed me to help my son do better,” said Paniagua.
Since middle school, Arah has been enrolled in Alianza Dominicana’s after-school programs at P.S. 132 Juan Pablo Duarte, where he received academic tutoring and mentoring services from a host of role models including the program’s director Angel Guillermo.
And now, even after he’s graduated from its programs, Arah and his family have continued to rely on the support and encouragement it provides.
The People to People program in which Arah seeks to participate in includes a trip through Europe that will cost approximately $8,000.
“When I found out he was chosen, I was happy for him and very proud,” said Paniagua. “But when I heard about the price of the trip, I lost it; I had no idea how I would do it.”
But Paniagua, like her son, would not be deterred.
She approached Guillermo, the director of the after-school program at P.S. 132 Juan Pablo Duarte.
She asked about whether she might be allowed to come by to sell pastelitos, the small empanadas filled with chicken or beef, at $1 a snack, in order to help her son raise funds for the student ambassadorship program.
Paniagua has been selling the pastelitos at the school since October 2011.
She prepares them after coming home from work, and brings them over to the school, where students line up for the tasty treat.
“This program did more for my family than I could ever repay them,” said Paniagua. “We have benefitted so much from this program, for them to allow me to do better for my son means so much for my family.”
The family has continued to save for Arah’s trip, and Paniagua daily makes her visits to Juan Pablo Duarte. They hope that they will have saved enough come summer.
In the meantime, Arah continues, together with his mother, to return every day to Juan Pablo Duarte, where he volunteers as a tutor, and jumps in to assist with snack time and offer help with homework. He particularly enjoys helping out in the gym.
“This program means so much to me,” said Arah. “I know if it means so much to me, it means a lot for the other kids that are having fun trying to escape from [other influences],” said Arah. “I think this program is one of the best there is in Washington Heights. It’s amazing.”
The family nears the second anniversary since Sahim’s death, on the 21st of May.
Mother and son hold each other tight, as they speak of the time past, and all that is to come.
Paniagua, smiling as she embraced her son, said, in spite of her loss, she felt gratitude.
“Northern Manhattan needs this program,” she said. “This program helps us raise our kids.”