Earthquake survivor uses education choice scholarship to become a 'Rising Star'
MARGATE, Florida – Sophonie Jean Baptiste was in the family’s second-floor apartment the day in 2010 when an earthquake rocked her native Haiti. She grabbed her daughter, Gema, who was not quite 3, and tried to run for safety while the three-story building they lived in crumbled.
They didn’t make it.
Nearly five hours later, family members heard Gema’s cries from under the rubble. She was the only one of the nine who were in the apartment to survive the 7.0 magnitude earthquake.
“My mom died trying to save me,” Gema said.
Debris lodged in Gema’s right eye cost her the vision in that eye.
Gema does not remember the earthquake that claimed an estimated 100,000 to 160,000 lives, nor any of the estimated 52 aftershocks that occurred during the following 12 days. She does not remember her father, Emmanuel, taking her to a hospital in the Dominican Republic for treatment on her eye.
Gema said she cannot remember anything that happened in her life before the age of 5, which was when she and her dad immigrated to the United States.
“I don’t remember my mother,” she said.
Gema, now 14, answered questions about the earthquake while sitting in an office inside Abundant Life Christian Academy in Margate, where she is finishing her freshman year. She has attended the private K-12 school since third grade on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is made possible by corporate donations to Step Up For Students.
She spoke in the quiet, confident voice of someone who knows where she is going in life.
To Broward College next year, where she will be dual enrolled.
To an Ivy League college.
To medical school.
To a life helping those who need help.
She wants to someday open her own hospital in Haiti.
“I always wanted to do something big with my life,” she said.
Gema received the High Achieving Student Award during this year’s Rising Stars Awards program, hosted by Step Up. Abundant Life Principal Stacy Angier nominated her for the award, which is for students who excel in academics, arts or athletics.
Gema excels in academics, where she is one of the top students in her school. She is a member of the National Junior Honor Society, tutors classmates in math and science, and volunteers for Abundant Life outreach programs, including a 2019 mission trip to Havana, Cuba. She can also be heard playing Beethoven on the school’s piano.
“Gema’s always been good at math and she’s a really hard worker and that’s a huge part of it,” Angier said. “The ability you bring to the table is important, but what’s really important is what you put into it, and she puts her heart and soul into it.”
Education is of the utmost importance to Gema and her father. That’s how she found her way to Abundant Life.
Emmanuel wanted a more-demanding education for his daughter than the one she was receiving at her district school.
“Anything that’s easy for Gema, she gets bored,” Emmanuel said. “She doesn’t want problems like one plus one equal two. She wants problems that are hard, that make you think.”
A coworker told him about Abundant Life. Emmanuel’s concerns about the school’s tuition were put to rest when he learned of the scholarships to K-12 private schools administered by Step Up.
He knew his daughter was in the right education environment when she came home after her first day in the third grade with 12 books in her backpack.
“They’re going to teach you a lot,” he told Gema.
Emmanuel, now a civil engineer for the City of Margate, calls the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program “the best thing ever.”
“This is amazing,” he said. “I tell Gema, ‘When you get to the Ivy League school and get your degrees and are making big bucks, I want you to put money into that program.’ This is the best program ever. I love it.
“Because of this program, she can be in one of the best schools in the district. I can’t say ‘thank you’ enough to those who contribute to the program.”
Emmanuel and his second wife, Sherline, have two sons – Emmanuel II, 7, and Stephen, 5. Both will begin attending Abundant Life in the 2022-23 school year.
“It’s a quality education,” Emmanuel said.
Gema’s mom, Sophonie, thought of becoming a doctor before deciding on a career as a nurse. Emmanuel said Sophonie’s dream was to guide their daughter to a career in medicine.
Gema was unaware of that plan when, at the age of 5, she told her dad that she wanted to be a doctor.
“As soon as she said that to me, I was like, ‘Wow! This was something your mom was dreaming about, you becoming a doctor,’ ” Emmanuel said.
It’s an ambitious dream for anyone, let alone a 5-year-old
After emerging from the rubble, Gema is building the foundation of a bright future. Emmanuel said his daughter has benefited by coming to America at a young age, learning to speak English well, getting a good education – all things he missed out on.
“The stuff I didn’t do, I can see it through her,” he said. “She’s going to make it.”
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.