Look ahead and give back. That’s AIC nursing student Ben Gonzalez’s ’16 approach to learning and to life. Born and raised in Springfield, at just 14 years old Ben found himself in an unenviable position. His mother struggled with substance abuse and his father was too elderly to care for him. The future looked bleak until the Center for Human Development (CHD) stepped in, an organization that provides a host of critical social and mental health services for people in Western Massachusetts and Connecticut.
In need of a place to go, Ben went to the home of Lucy Amankwah and her daughter, Thelma, who live in Springfield. “They didn’t know me other than through the foster care agency,” says Ben, “but they welcomed me into their home.”
Ben remained with the Amankwahs through his 18th birthday. That’s when he decided it was time to get his own place. But he didn’t go far. In fact, Ben moved just a few steps away, into the other side of the Amankwahs’ duplex, to remain close to his foster family and continue his education. His hard work paid off—Ben graduated this May with a bachelor of science in nursing.
As if the demands of nursing school weren’t enough, Ben worked full-time nights at Baystate Medical Center as a patient care and monitor tech so that he could go to school full-time days. Yet he still found time to reach out to people in need. This past holiday season, Ben spearheaded the Student Nurse Association’s drive to collect toys, clothing, and personal items for other children in foster care, hoping to guarantee that even older children, who often go unnoticed, had one special gift waiting under the tree. “I don’t think I’d be here today without the help of strangers,” Ben reflected. “Having CHD as an organization care for me, I will always remember. I’m moving on a good path but not on my own. If I didn’t have people to guide me…,” he trails off.
As for the role AIC played in his journey to adulthood, Ben is quick say that the College gave him “a chance to excel and grow.” “I had struggles while here, but faculty and tutoring opportunities supported me academically.” In addition, he was inspired by the diversity of age and experience of fellow students in the nursing program. “Many are working full time and have families at home. They’re coming to AIC to improve their lives. When I saw other students who were able to do it, it motivated me and kept me going. I don’t have a husband, two kids, and a dog. If they could do it, I could do it!”
On a personal note, Ben’s relationship with his foster mom remains close and she continues to provide foster care to children in need of a place to call home. His relationship with Thelma, whom Ben calls his sister and credits with helping raise him, has changed in a positive way. “We’re now more on equal terms.” Thelma is pursuing a PhD in psychology at AIC with the goal of becoming a clinician. This past April Ben was honored with the MaryAnne’s Kids Spirit award at the 14th annual CHD fundraising benefit. Proceeds of the gala benefited the MaryAnne’s Kids Fund—established to provide extraordinary opportunities for children in foster care that would otherwise be unavailable to them. The fund provides foster children with the means to pursue special interests in music, dance, art, sports, summer camps, and extra-curricular education with a goal of those experiences offering a positive influence that will remain with the children throughout their lives.
While Ben entered the workforce immediately as a med-surge acute care nurse upon graduation, within a year he says he’ll apply to graduate school to pursue his MSN. “My ultimate goal is to be a nurse manager.”
Looking back at where he’s been and ahead to where he’s going, Ben offers advice born from personal experience, “Don’t be afraid to pursue your own goals but look around—to your left and to your right—to see who you can help bring up.”
Who knows, that person standing to your side could be the next Nurse Gonzalez; a young man or woman in need of a helping hand—on the sometimes bumpy road to success.