(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)
Luis Rodriguez will spend this Christmas surrounded by family, in his own apartment, with a tree, gifts, and a big dinner.
Many can take these things for granted, but not Luis. Less than two years ago, he was homeless, sleeping on benches outside the Prudential Center and later at a series of shelters. He doesn’t regret it.
“I’m glad I was homeless. I learned a lot from it,” Luis said recently. “It humbled me, and it made me see something that I never saw before in life. It made me love my family a lot more.”
Luis was born in Massachusetts but grew up in Puerto Rico, raised with his older sister and younger brother by their paternal grandparents. His mother had cast out his father and the children — then ages 7, 6, and 5 — keeping only her youngest son, Alexis, then 3.
His father moved in with another woman, but having a home didn’t mean proper care for the children. Luis and younger brother Carlos said their father would leave them unattended and forget to feed them. Soon the Department of Children and Families took the children.
Their lives were better in the Puerto Rican municipality of Sabana Grande. Their grandfather was strict, they said, and he became angry when he drank. But he saw that they had everything they needed, and their grandmother was kind.
For a few years, Luis had a normal childhood, but at 10 he was diagnosed with leukemia. He knew of the disease only from a soap opera his grandmother watched, in which it killed a little boy.
“When the doctor told me that I had leukemia, I remember I started crying,” Luis said. “And I told my grandmother, ‘Am I going to die? Am I going to die?’ And she was crying, and she didn’t know what to tell me.”
For two and a half years, Luis underwent chemotherapy in San Juan. The treatment was excruciating, he said, and left him bald and too weak to play.
He and his grandmother spent long periods in San Juan, a two-hour drive from home. His brother Carlos and sister Jennifer visited as often as they could.
“It was really hard because he was always in the hospital,” Carlos, 22, recalled. “We wanted to be with him but we couldn’t.”
Eventually the leukemia went into remission. He was able to return to school and to socialize, but the disease had changed him. The exuberant boy had become a weary and wary teen.
Then, at 15, he relapsed. His doctor said the prognosis was grim.
“She told me straight up that she didn’t give me a lot of hope,” Luis said. “That relapse was really difficult for me, because there weren’t a lot of people who thought that I would make it.”
Luis needed a bone marrow transplant, but there was a close match within his family.
A year earlier, Luis’ mother had left Alexis to be raised by their grandparents, without pausing to visit her other children. Jennifer, Luis, and Carlos hadn’t seen their baby brother in eight years, but they welcomed him joyously.
When Luis needed Alexis’ bone marrow, the 12-year-old was eager to help.
After the transplant, Luis’ strength slowly returned. He returned to high school for his senior year and went on to study microbiology at a university an hour from home.
At 20, Luis decided to make a fresh start in Massachusetts. He stayed at first with an uncle in Taunton but couldn’t find a job nearby. So he moved in with his father and his father’s longtime girlfriend in Boston.
He soon saw that while the couple had added three children to the family, little else had changed in 14 years. They argued frequently and violently. Luis and his half-brother Christian went to police, and the Department of Children and Families again intervened, putting Luis’ three half-siblings into different foster homes.
Luis became homeless, sleeping outdoors and then at a series of shelters. He became one of the first to stay at a youth shelter opened in July 2011 at the downtown offices of Bridge Over Troubled Waters, an organization that helps runaway, homeless, and at-risk youth find homes, jobs, and education.
Stephen Keizer, coordinator for the shelter, said Luis made a strong first impression.
“I just knew that he was going to be all right, that he just needed a hand with things that needed to be done,” Keizer said.
With their grandfather drinking daily and becoming more aggressive, Carlos left Puerto Rico to join Luis in Boston and make his own fresh start. Carlos didn’t know Luis had become homeless — he hadn’t wanted his family to worry.
Keizer helped secure a bed for Carlos in the youth shelter, concerned that Luis would return to the streets himself rather than leave his brother alone in an unfamiliar city. “He just takes so much on himself,” Keizer said.
With help from Bridge and other organizations, Luis was able to get a low-income apartment in Charlestown, and he and Carlos moved in last February.
When a job opened up at the youth shelter, Keizer offered it to Luis. Now he helps counsel and care for other young people. Keizer said that with those who know his story, Luis has instant credibility.
Luis hopes to return to college and complete his degree, but for now he is focused on work, taking on overtime whenever he can to support his habit of buying gifts for family. This is Carlos’ turn to focus on education, and he will complete his classes at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Cambridge next spring.
Luis’ father ended his relationship with his longtime girlfriend. He found temporary housing and has custody of his three younger children. On Christmas Day, they will join Luis and Carlos to exchange gifts and share a family dinner.
“This Christmas is going to be really good for us,” Luis said. “Actually, it’s going to be our first Christmas as a family together.”