Like many kids growing up, Orlando Echevarria’12 had dreams. He wanted to graduate from high school and play basketball at a four-year college.
It hasn’t been easy, but Echevarria is fulfilling his dream. He graduated from Chelsea (Massachusetts) High in 2007 and is on track to receive his degree in Safety and Occupational Health Applied Sciences with a minor in Criminal Justice from Keene State College in May.
The fact that Echevarria is only months away from walking across the stage on Fiske Quad and being handed his diploma, instead of hanging around on the streets of Chelsea, demonstrates where hard work and determination will take you – even if the deck is stacked against you. “As a junior in high school, if someone had asked me if I was going to college, I would have said, ‘No way,’ ” Echevarria said. No one in his family had gone to college. “Every day I think back and I’m thankful to the people who gave me a better life.”
Life growing up in Chelsea, a densely populated city across the Mystic River from Boston, can be harsh. Especially if you rely on the streets rather than the schools to provide you with an education. At times, Echevarria felt he had no choice. While his mother, Rosame Dejesus, did her best to provide Orlando and his three siblings with a loving, comfortable upbringing, the lack of a consistent father figure in his life forced him to seek affirmation and acceptance on the streets. And once you’re out there, it’s difficult to escape. “It’s something that sucks you in. You have no control of it,” he said. “It becomes attached to you and it doesn’t come off.”
School was no better. Placed in special-education classes, Echevarria became a pariah. Looking for direction, he found instead condemnation. “The teachers didn’t care,” said Echevarria. “I was told I was going to be a failure.”
By his own admission, Echevarria was no saint growing up. He succumbed to the pressure and temptation of the streets, ran afoul with the law, and developed a gang mentality. Day-to-day life became a battle for survival. “I feared nobody,” he said.
Echevarria believes his street-smarts and inner strength have been more help than hindrance in getting him where he has wanted to go in life. He was also strong enough torealize that he was making the wrong choices. “When I was young, I made some bad choices,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I also made the choice that I wanted a better future.”
Echevarria never saw sports as his ticket off the streets. Overweight as a child and weighing 300 pounds by the age of 13, Echevarria faced further ridicule from his peers. In fifth grade, he began playing baseball and picked up a basketball for the first time. Gaining more confidence with every pound he shed, he played in the local leagues and later at Chelsea High, developing into one of the team’s top players. While his time on the court served as a welcome respite from the daily grind and pressures of life, Echevarria couldn’t turn off the temper, stubbornness, and frustration that led to numerous skirmishes on the court. Fighting a losing battle, Echevarria realized he needed help. “I wasn’t dumb,” he said. “I knew I could do it, but I just needed someone else to tell me I could.”
That person was Chris Jones, the head basketball coach at Bunker Hill Community College in Chelsea. “I thought if I got an opportunity to work with him, I could turn him,” said Jones. “He struck me as a kid who just needed some guidance.” Recruited heavily by Coach Jones to play at Bunker Hill C.C., Echevarria instead decided to follow his high school sweetheart down to Georgia.
When things didn’t turn out well in Georgia, Echevarria turned again to Jones. “I started to believe in him because he believed in me,” said Echevarria. “He was the one guy I could actually say that I’m here for him.”
Returning to Chelsea, Echevarria enrolled at Bunker Hill, becoming a full-time student in the fall of 2008. Coach Jones found a mobile front-court player and Echevarria found a lifelong mentor. Echevarria didn’t disappoint Jones, starting two seasons and earning all-region honors his second year. “The thing that strikes me most about Orlando is his work ethic,” said Jones, now in his ninth year as the athletic director at Bunker Hill. “He is a workhorse and will do whatever it takes to improve.”
“Basketball was the driving force that helped him change and mature,” said Jones. “Orlando began to realize that basketball was going to be a way out for him, and the last thing he wanted was to jeopardize his ability to be on the court.”
Maturity also means taking responsibility. The birth of his son, Adrian, during his second year in school, became a driving force for Echevarria to succeed. “I wanted my son to know that I’m his dad and I love him,” said Echevarria. “I wasn’t going to run from my responsibility.”
Echevarria’s play on the court began drawing the attention of several four-year schools, including Keene State. He had never heard of the college, but KSC Coach Rob Colbert and his staff knew all about him. “We went to see him at an all-star game and loved the way he competed, so we recruited the heck out of him,” said Colbert. “We were what he needed and he was what we needed.”
Echevarria laughs when he recalls his first trip to Keene. “I had no idea where I was going,” he said. “But when I got to the campus – it was beautiful.”
Keene State filled all of Echevarria’s wishes on his college criteria list. It was a place to get his education and play basketball, and, just as important, far enough away from home. “If I was close to home, I wouldn’t be able to focus and concentrate,” he said.
Away from the lure of the streets, Echevarria could concentrate on his studies and relax. No longer did he have to look over his shoulder every time he left home. “Up here, you don’t have to worry about anything,” he said. “You can go out with your friends at night and just chill. I can’t do that back home.
“Coming to Keene State was the best thing for me,” said Echevarria. “I’m getting my education, staying out of trouble, and having fun enjoying the college experience. It’s everything I dreamed about as a kid.”
One of those experiences occurred last season when he took his first steps on the Spaulding Gym court. “Nobody knows, but I cried in the locker room because I made it,” he said. “That was my goal. That was my dream.”
Off the court, he’s had no problems maintaining his grades and has bonded well with his basketball teammates. “They’re like my little family in Keene,” he said. “You can never go wrong with family.”
“We welcomed him with open arms,” said team captain Steve Boudreau, who roomed with Echevarria last year. “He’s been a great addition to the team.”
His other family might be back in Chelsea, but they’re always with him. Echevarria has a tattoo of his mother, uncle, and siblings on his right arm. “They mean everything to me,” said Echevarria, looking down at his arm.
Echevarria also found a special friend – Ellyse Davis – a member of the school’s volleyball team. Although Orlando has a difficult time explaining the connection, given that she’s from affluent Londonderry, New Hampshire, and he’s from the tough inner-city, the two click. Echevarria has brought a little city into Davis’s life and Davis has given Echevarria an opportunity to experience life away from the hustle and bustle of the city. For Echevarria, small things like mowing a lawn was a brand-new experience. “It was loads of fun,” he said. “We don’t do that back at home.”
These days, Echevarria doesn’t talk much about his past. As far as he’s concerned, it’s all about the future. After graduating, Echevarria plans to go into law enforcement and work as a police officer on either the State of Massachusetts or Chelsea force. He recently was overcome with pride and satisfaction after scoring 96 on the exam.
Over the summer, Echevarria worked with kids back home. He hopes his message of defying the odds and making something out of his life resonates with them. “I tell anyone who’s been in my shoes not to give up, and keep on fighting,” he said. “At the end of the day, you’re going to open your eyes and be surprised to see how far you’ve gone.”