As Published by The Enterprise
By Marc Larocque, Staff Writer
BROCKTON - Growing up in Haiti, as a boy raised by extended family after his mother died when he was 4 years old, Jean Bradley Derenoncourt said there was a smart, Christian girl with long hair at his private school in Portau-Prince that he imagined himself going on to marry.
"She was the only girl that I ever hoped to have in my life," saidDerenoncourt, recalling memories from seven years ago, when a national tragedy took place. "I saw her at 8 a.m. that day. Then again at noon. And then she died."
Derenoncourt, now 26 and living in Brockton, said he looked on with sadness as devastation surrounded him, claiming the life of that girl along with about 220,000 others in his native country of Haiti, when the nation was struck on Jan. 12, 2010 by a catastrophic earthquake. Derenoncourt said the school building he was inside earlier that day collapsed, and many people he knew were hurt during the quake, but he remained unscathed. Living through this, he said, changed his perspective forever, before he went on to pursue the American dream.
"Fortunately, I was okay myself, nothing touched me," said Derenoncourt, who recalled seeing a flood of American airplanes flying in with aid, lighting up the night sky. "It was unbelievable that that devastation was possible. At first, yeah, it was very depressing. It sort of changed my ideology and gave me a different perspective in terms of appreciating what is going on, and valuing other people, too. We should never let a second pass without recognizing what it means to be a human being."
Derenoncourt said that living through the aftermath of the earthquake motivated him as he took the opportunity to come to the United States on Dec. 6, 2010, with the help of families members living in Brockton, where he has since learned English, received a high school equivalency diploma, earned a degree at Massasoit Community College, where he was the speaker for his class at graduation, and then became an American citizen.
However, the transition to a new country was not always so smooth, Derenoncourt said. Along with learning a whole new language, and making new friends, there were also some other things he had to adjust to.
"The thing that was a shock to me was how cold it was," he said. "When I got here, I didn't have a coat. I can remember vividly, walking out of the airport, waving at my sister so they could recognize me, and it was so cold out there. I could feel my ears were like exploding."
Derenoncourt, who speaks fluent English but with a Haitian French accent, now works on Beacon Hill as a legislative aide for state Sen. Michael Brady, D-Brockton. He just completed a bachelor's program at Suffolk University in political science, and he is now going for his master's degree in the same subject along with international relations.
Since coming to Brockton, Derenoncourt has worked his way up, starting with a job as bus boy at the former Christo's restaurant, then becoming a pizza maker, before eventually getting an internship in the administration of former Brockton mayor Linda Balzotti, and then earning a similar role at the office of former governor Deval Patrick. Derenoncourt was also regional coordinator for the 2014 campaign to pass a statewide ballot measure providing all Massachusetts workers the chance to earn sick leave.
"The one thing that I've learned about Brockton is that, if you are willing to try, there are people that are willing to help you," Derenoncourt said. "Not everyone recognizes that potential about the city. Taking a look back to my life in Haiti, and compare it to my life living here, it's just amazing. This is one of the greatest places that anyone could ever hope for."
During an interview in his room on the west side of the city, where he has two book cases full of literature, like "The Science of Mind" by Ernest Holmes and "Diplomacy" by Henry Kissinger, Derenoncourt said that learning English was difficult. But he said a program at the Brockton Public Library helped him, in addition to his passion for reading.
"It was not easy," Derenoncourt said. "It's not even easy now. But I'm willing to learn and do my best. In life, you've got to have patience."
It was at that English learning program at the library where Derenoncourt met his "surrogate mom," Ruth O'Brien. Derenoncourt said they "clicked," and in 2012 he left his father's home to move in with his new surrogate mom, who continued to teach him English and helped him forge a career path.
"She became one of the most influential people in my life," said Derenoncourt, who was also friends with her father, Walter O'Brien, who died two years ago. "
Ruth O'Brien said that her surrogate son is helpful around the neighborhood, sometimes assisting elderly people by removing snow from their driveways. She credited Derenoncourt for his resiliency.
"Other people might have buckled under the stress and the situations that he went through," O'Brien said. "If anything, it's just made him have all the more of an open mind about educating himself, and helping people. ... Jean seems to impress everyone that he meets. You don't really forget who he is."
Derenoncourt said his biological mother died from an illness unknown to him when he was four years old, and that he doesn't know much about her, except for a photo that he keeps on his cell phone. Derenoncourt said he believes his biological mother lives on through O'Brien's care for him, despite the difference in their racial backgrounds.
"Sometimes people ask me, 'How come she's so white, and you're so dark?'" Derenoncourt said. "But they don't know the story. I think just because someone is not your biological mom doesn't mean they don't have an impact on your life. I can tell you, as a young black person in this country, she gave me reason to believe that my biological mom is still alive."
Derenoncourt said that, growing up in Haiti, he had a vision of America based on television shows and Hollywood movies.
"In my country, whenever you talk about America, people see it as the land of hope and opportunities," he said. "This is where people can come and have not just a decent life, but the best life."
After becoming a U.S. citizen in February 2016, the patriotic Derenoncourt said that he now wants to give back to the country - and community - that offered him so much.
"My paramount goal is to make a difference, and hopefully to give back to Brockton," Derenoncourt said. "Brockton has done so much for me. I hope life will give me the opportunity to give back to the city that I love so much."