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A heart for others

On the surface, Cristopher Chávez’s story might appear to be like that of many other immigrants who come to the United States in search of a better life. In his case, however, it was a matter of life or death.

Chávez, a native of Peru, was born with a rare heart condition that, if not operated on, gave him the possibility of living until just 19 years of age.

Today, Chávez is an 18-year-old in excellent health, and he is grateful for the life-altering decision his parents made when he was young — to leave everything behind and embark on a journey to Georgia, with the faith that doctors there could give their child a chance at a normal life. Through much effort and the help of insurance, surgery became a reality when Chávez was in third grade.

The operation not only saved his life, it also set Chávez on a path to realizing a bigger dream: the desire to one day become a heart surgeon. Currently a student at Pebblebrook High School, Chávez is on his way to achieving that goal, having recently found out that he has been accepted at – and received a scholarship for – his dream college, Emory University.

“All of that happened for a reason, and now I have the opportunity to make a difference, just like doctors did with me,” Chávez said.

Chávez will graduate with the highest GPA in his class, and while he is now seeing the fruits of years of hard work and effort there was a time when he worried that his legal status would prevent him from attending college.

Someone who was a witness and big support to Chávez during that time was Mercedes Reilly, a parent resource specialist at Pebblebrook High School.

“He was crestfallen thinking that he would never be able to attend college in the United States and that his career path was going to be very difficult. I spent a lot of time searching for scholarships for him and for colleges that accepted DACA students. His spirits lifted, and in a year I saw a huge change in him,” Reilly said.

When Chávez was in 11th grade and starting to explore options for college, he was pleasantly surprised to discover that Emory was awarding scholarships to undocumented students. He applied, and the rest is history.

A dedicated student, Chávez is president of his school’s National Honor Society, and he also leads several community service clubs. He is grateful to the people who gave their time and sacrificed in order for him to reach this point, especially his parents, Junior and Judith, who — in these times of uncertainty for many immigrants — hope to be able to enjoy what took them so much effort to build.

“My parents are still undocumented, and the times we are living in scare them a little. They are happy that I was accepted at Emory, and they want to be here to see all that happen and to support me,” Chávez said.

For Reilly, seeing Chávez’s accomplishments marks a special close to this school year’s end and also offers a message to many other students who are unsure about their ability to achieve their dreams.

“I tell them not to fall down, to get up and try, to study and to prepare. To rise above, because the opportunities are there. To not give up,” Reilly said.

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