BRADENTON -- Eighteen-year-old Leonardo Leal couldn’t afford to pay for senior pictures. For years, he didn’t have a solitary place to call home. But all that’s changing for the guy called Leo by his friends.
The Braden River High School valedictorian has been one of Manatee County’s sought-after students. Once homeless, Leo has been accepted to Harvard, Stanford and Brown universities. He’s also on the wait list at Dartmouth and Princeton. On Saturday, he returned to Bradenton from a visit to Stanford in Palo Alto, Calif. He’s already seen Harvard and Washington and Lee University in person.
But there will be no more college visits for Leo. He recently announced he’ll enroll this fall at Stanford.
“I love it here. It’s official,” he said with enthusiasm. “Stanford offers what I like. The atmosphere, the people, the energy . . . it motivates me to study.”
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Leo was offered more than $50,000 in scholarships and grants to attend the university. He will also receive federal aid. When Leo began asking about places to stay before school starts, Stanford University President John Hennessy walked by and offered advice. The conversation served as one of the highlights of Leo’s weekend.
But he didn’t always have that boundless enthusiasm and energy about higher education.
“Three years ago, I thought I would never go to college,” he said.
That was a dark period for Leo. His stepfather asked him to quit school to go to work. When Leo didn’t quit, his stepfather kicked him out of the house he shared with his mother and two brothers.
“That was the worst,” Leo said, recalling how he would make it.
The departure from family was a far cry from the more stable days as a young boy in Mexico. He lived there with his grandmother for years.
Even today, he considers his loving Magdalena as mother and grandmother. But when her health began to weaken, Leo was sent to live with family in the United States.
He came to this country at 12 as an illegal immigrant. As a middle schooler, he had to grasp the English language. It wasn’t easy, he said.
Meanwhile, his home life wasn’t easy, either. He was shuffled between aunts and cousins from throughout Manatee and Hillsborough counties.
He shuffled between Braden River and Palmetto high schools, plus Lennard High in Ruskin. He would go from home to home in at least five different moves.
“I would try to stay at the place where I was for as long as I could,” Leo said.
The third move had him living with his mother and stepfather. It wasn’t a good transition. He suffered from his stepfather’s harshness.
“Sometimes I looked at the sky and wondered why certain things were happening to me,” he said. “I just endured.”
He would pray and remember what his grandmother said to him.
“When I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “She would say, ‘Only death doesn’t have a solution. Everything else has a solution.’ She always told me, ‘Never be affected by the negative things.’ ”
He was determined to overlook drugs and gangs. He took her words to heart and began to create new mottoes for himself: “Work hard and try to make a better future for myself.”
That’s the impression he made on Braden River High School’s Christy Holt. Leo was in Holt’s advance placement class when he was a freshman.
“He’s a fascinating kid,” Holt said. “He won’t stop where others would be happy to find an excuse to stop. I don’t know if I’ve met anybody like him.”
Holt described Leo as a sharp kid with a strong work ethic. She said he isn’t a savant, just “extremely intelligent.”
“I’ve never met anyone who takes roadblocks and turns them around,” Holt said.
Deborah Bailey, school district social worker and program manager for Project Heart, called Leo her “genius kid.”
“We were aware he was well above average,” she said.
Project Heart is a program that assists families and students who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. She said it was clear that education was important to Leo.
“It was clear he was brilliant because he’d only been in the country for a few years,” Bailey said. “He’s bounced around from relative to relative over the past couple years. It just impresses me that he’s persevered. It would have been much easier to just give up.”
Gulf Coast Legal Service helped Leo get a special juvenile immigrant status.
The special visa allows him to be in the country legally. In five years, he can apply for U.S. citizenship, he said.
As a student, he’s applied to 13-15 universities, Bailey said. She said that even applying took courage. But he seemed to do it like he did everything else, with “single-minded determination and perseverance.”
Education helped him focus. He called school “his relief or therapy.”
“Education was like a pedestal where I could stand and be positive,” he said.
That positivity served as a key to the door of a dream-filled future. Leo said he now lives in a good place with a cousin in Bradenton.
“I have many dreams,” he said. “I’m still young.”
He plans to study either business/international marketing or medicine.
“I often thought: Why (did) I have to endure so many things?” Leo asked. “At the same time, the experience I endured made me a stronger person. If I had lived in a different situation, I might not have acquired all the positive situations.”
In June, he will graduate from Braden River High School, where he is currently ranked first in his class, according to the Manatee County School District.
He has a weighted grade point average of 4.66. However, that won’t be the only graduation Leo will have this summer.
He’ll also graduate from the State College of Florida with an associate’s degree and 26.5 credit hours.
And there’s one more thing he wants to do before he starts at Stanford: see his beloved Magdalena.
“It’s my way of thanking her for all she’s done,” he said. “She took care of me like a son.”