When Lynden Simmons was in the eighth grade, his family had to move into a homeless shelter. It was the longest three months of his life.
At school, he smiled like he always did and joked with friends. At the shelter, Lynden kept to himself. He had chores, like the rest of his family, and a curfew. Homework became a refuge.
“I just did what I had to do,’’ he said.
Instead of letting the experience disrupt his life, Lynden called upon it for motivation. That year was among his best, academically.
“It encouraged him to work harder,’’ said the teen’s mom, Linda Jones, a sporadically-employed housekeeper from the Bahamas who battles Lupus and struggles to read and write English. “It pushed him.’’
Lynden went from a high-performing public middle school to Christopher Columbus High School, a prestigious Catholic school with a student roster made up of some of Miami’s wealthiest and most notable families.
He made it there – and has stayed there – due to a tremendous work ethic and a little extra help, including a scholarship from Step Up For Students. Now he’s the junior class vice president vying for a coveted spot on the varsity basketball team.
And at just 16, Lynden’s also the president of 305-United, a relatively new nonprofit founded and operated by students predominately from Catholic schools across South Florida. Their mission: to help less fortunate families by doing good deeds like raising money to buy toys for children in shelters.
For Lynden, the outreach is especially poignant.
“It makes me remember to never forget where I came from,’’ he said. “And I was there.’’
Lynden wants to be a lawyer someday. This year, he plans to buckle down and improve his 3.0 GPA.
“I’m pushing for all A’s with honors classes,’’ he said.
Those who know him best say he will give this effort and every effort his all because he believes he must. He owes it to the people who believe in him.
“He’s one of those kids who completely understands the opportunities he has been given,’’ said Jose Mas, one of Lynden’s former basketball coaches and president and chief executive officer of MasTec, an engineering and construction company in Coral Gables. “He gets it 100 percent.’’
The two met about three years ago, when Mas’ travel basketball team, which included his son, Jose Miguel, merged with Lynden’s team. The two boys became fast friends, so it didn’t take long for Mas Sr. to become a fan of Lynden, too.
“He’s a very, very special kid,’’ Mas said. “Something drew me to him. I think he was yearning for an opportunity.’’
And Mas, and alumnus of Christopher Columbus, was just the man to help. When it came time for Lynden to head to high school, Mas, his “silent role model,’’ talked with the teen and his mother about school options. Christopher Columbus offered a structured environment with small classes, an excellent academic program and a camaraderie that encouraged students.
Lynden welcomed the idea.
“All of my friends (including Mas’ son) were going to private schools,’’ he said. “What this school had to offer was too good to pass up. It’s all boys, so we get along very easily. There are no distractions (girls). We go to the same parties and everyone goes to the game. We support each other.’’
Despite her difficulties, Lynden’s mother tries to lead her son and his three siblings, ages 4 to 21, by example.
“It’s not about me or my pride,’’ Jones said.
With help from the shelter, Jones was able to save enough money to find a home for her family. When it came time to choose a school for her eldest son, one he badly wanted to attend, she turned to Step Up for assistance. Because the scholarship doesn’t cover the whole cost of tuition, Jones graciously accepted more help from Mas and others in the community to make up the difference.
“What I love about (Linda) is her values … ,’’ Mas said. “They are absolutely fantastic. She’s super engaged and super involved.’’
And what Jones loves about the Mases and other Christopher Columbus families, who have given so much of their time and more to her family, is that “they show Lynden a different life.’’
One where he will succeed.
Christopher Columbus High School is a Catholic, college preparatory, all-male secondary school. Established in 1958, the school fosters three distinct traditions: the pursuit of academic excellence, the heritage of Catholic education, and the unique spirit and mission of the Marist Brothers, which aims to nurture the growth of the whole student in heart, mind, and body. About 1,356 students attended the school in 2013-14; of those, about 143 were Step Up scholars. Academic achievement is measured annually by the PSAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. The school is accredited by AdvancED/Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and is a member of Marist Secondary Education Association and the National Catholic Education Association. It is also associated with the Archdiocese of Miami.
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