To be honest, he may have never heard of one of the more famous pilgrims, but it doesn’t mean that the Hagerstown Community College guard isn’t down with what Standish was feeling on this day oh so many years ago.
The turkey is going to taste a whole lot better — maybe even different — to Clerius today. Like the Plymouth Rock crowd, this will be a “first” Thanksgiving … a real first opportunity to make a grateful acknowledgment of all gifts, benefits and favors that have been received.
It will be the first time Clerius celebrates one of America’s most traditional of holidays in a traditional way — as an American.
Clerius, a Haitian native who moved to the United States in 2000, earned that indulgence on Oct. 26, when he was awarded United States citizenship.
Like the pilgrims, coming to America was an adventure for Clerius, complete with good, bad and uncertain times. But looking back, the trek was more than worth it.
“When it happened, I said, ‘This is really happening,’” Clerius said while sitting in the bleachers in HCC’s athletic complex. “It was shocking to me that I was that excited. A couple of years ago, it didn’t matter to me really, but as I matured, I really wanted to do it. Becoming a citizen gives me a lot of opportunity.”
That, in itself, is enough to give Clerius a full plate today. After he takes time to remember all the reasons to be thankful, it will be time to remember the people who have been there for him.
The list will include the city of Martinsburg, W.Va. — which is his adopted home — and its citizens. There will be individuals like Martinsburg basketball coach Dave Rogers and Paula Mills, Clerius’ ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, who adopted him as a “godmother.”
And there might even be room for HCC and its coaches and players, which are a huge part of his life now.
But tops on the list will be Maria Charles, Clerius’ mother.
“I’m thankful for the support my mom gave me because she was a single mom,” he said. “My mom is a hard-working lady and she always provided for me and my sisters.
“My mom wanted me to become a citizen because she worried I wouldn’t be able to get to the next level — that there would be no college and no high school diploma. She said to me, ‘I want you to be part of the United States. You will be a difference maker.’”
Thanks a lot
Some think Americans are like the young.
Youth (citizenship) is wasted on the young (citizens).
Many have a tendency to complain of what we don’t have and forget what we own.
“I can’t speak for others,” Clerius said. “A lot of people have things to be thankful for. But you never know how thankful you are for something until it’s taken away and you don’t have it.”
He carries the disposition that makes that statement believable.
“He is very quiet and isn’t boastful,” said HCC coach Barry Brown. “Most people don’t even realize that his life has been challenging. We are very proud of him. Jean Eddy achieved a goal.
“It just shows that anything is possible if you want it bad enough.”
Maybe the reason Clerius cherishes his newly acquired citizenship is because he didn’t realize he wanted it so much. Then again, at age 9, it might be because he didn’t know that membership has privileges.
“I didn’t want to come,” Clerius said. “I didn’t want to leave my family and friends and I didn’t know much about the United States. Now, I’m thankful about being a citizen. I’m thankful about being able to overcome things to be able to do that.”
The hard way
When it comes to Haiti, the United States is on the outside looking in.
It’s a country with many political and economic problems shown on television news and charity infomercials. For some, it is a vacation paradise.
But that’s the other side of the island. On Clerius’ side, it was no paradise.
“Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere,” Clerius said. “There are the poor and the really poor. People couldn’t afford places to live. Houses were packed with 10 or more people living in the one room.”
Haiti has endured challenging times. It is scarred by political violence and destroyed by natural disasters, most recently a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010. It destroyed buildings, business, homes and lives.
“Haiti is worse now,” Clerius said. “Not everyone has the same lifestyle. The fighting and the natural disasters that happened down there made everything worse. The bad thing is that the government is bad down there. All the help that is being sent and the people should be receiving is not getting to the people.”
Clerius won’t say where his family’s lifestyle ranked — poor or really poor — but it was challenging all the same. No day was easy or normal.
“People shop at markets, but not everyone has money,” he said. “My mom sold things at the markets. It wasn’t an everyday job and there were some good days and some that were not so good, so it affected things.”
But when there were good times, even in poverty, there is charity.
“A lot of people were unable to eat every day. Sometimes they went weeks without eating,” Clerius said. “When you did have food, it was a big deal to be able to share with everyone else. It was really important to help.”
Now, after living in the United States for half of his life, Clerius understands the difference.
“When we go back to visit, people know we are living in America,” he said. “A lot of people think we are now rich. They come to us looking for money and help.
“Haitian people are strong. They will overcome.”
Coming to America
Like the Mayflower before him, Clerius’ trip to the U.S. wasn’t all smooth sailing.
Clerius began life without his father, who left Haiti during Charles’ pregnancy with Clerius.
Then, when he was 9, Clerius’ dad sent for the family to join him in the United States. Reluctantly, Clerius came as his family moved to Florida, where one of his two sisters now resides, before heading to Martinsburg.
It was a whole new world to Clerius, who was getting more than a new home. He was getting his father.
“That’s another thing for me to be thankful for,” he said. “I was happy to meet him. I think everyone has some feeling for their dad, even though they may not have met him before.”
It didn’t last long, though. Clerius’ parents soon divorced, causing more change. The family was forced to move into a Martinsburg homeless shelter.
With a little help
From there, Clerius’ life began to change.
The Martinsburg community took his family under its wing.
Some of the changes came when Clerius attended school, where he met new people, a new language and a new sport.
“When I first got here, I didn’t know how to speak English. Everyone was helpful to get me going,” he said. “When I was in Haiti, I played soccer, but no one here did. I started playing basketball at Eagle School in the fifth grade during recess. It helped me make friends.
“I wanted to be active, but since there wasn’t any soccer, I started to work on basketball. I’m a quick learner. I practiced a lot and the more I practiced the better I got.”
The ability to learn quickly served Clerius well. So did the people he met along the way.
First there was Mills, who instructed him in English and stayed on to help his life. The “godmother” still works with him and helps him with American life decisions, like attending HCC.
Then there was Rogers, who pointed Clerius in HCC’s direction after coaching him with the Bulldogs for three seasons.
“He’s a big part of things for me,” Clerius said. “He added me to the varsity when I was a sophomore. I got the chance to play on a team that won the state championship. That’s one of the biggest things that has happened to me in my life.”
And along the way, Clerius was adopted by the citizens of Martinsburg, who helped insure his future.
“They gave me a lot,” he said. “The more people who help have connections. They raised a lot of donations to help me get here (at HCC).”
Rogers called Brown in behalf of Clerius to give him a look at HCC.
“I’ve known coach Rogers for a long time,” Brown said. “He told me about Jean Eddy and said that he was a player who could play at this level and help us. He told me that Jean Eddy was one of the finest people I’d ever meet. That was important to me.
“He’s come from a great program at Martinsburg, but it takes so much more than that to be a great player and a great person.”
Clerius didn’t play much his freshman season. He was deep on HCC’s bench and spent most of the year trying to adjust.
“He spent a year working on his game,” Brown said. “He got stronger and wiser. He never lost faith in himself. That was important. There are some freshmen who can’t handle that, but Jean Eddy has done what he needed to to make himself a good college basketball player.”
Clerius may have finally turned the corner on Nov. 12 when HCC played the Alderson-Broaddus junior varsity and won in blowout proportions. Clerius scored 27 points in strong fashion, with two flurries that helped the Hawks take the lead and blow it open for a 136-56 victory.
“It’s a great feeling. My teammates and coaches really support me and give me confidence to my game and shooting 3s,” he said. “I have a lot more confidence now. I’m not shy to shoot. I’ve always been a scorer and a defender, but I have more confidence now. I’ve proved to myself that I’m capable of playing.”
Brown sees even more.
“He’s a leader and a co-captain,” the third-year head coach said. “He represents all the things that are good about college athletics. He’s an excellent student, a good role model and he is proud of the school he represents and to wear the HCC uniform.”
The American way
Clerius is ready to live his mother’s vision.
And because of his new citizenship, HCC becomes the starting point.
As an American, Clerius can more easily earn a scholarship. Brown says Clerius’ improved game and new status will definitely open doors. It couldn’t hurt if the Hawks would happen to make the national tournament, too.
“I would love that,” Clerius said. “We are capable of it because we have the players, the team and the coaches. I have no goals … just to be the best I can be and work as hard as I can.”
Off the court, though, Clerius has definite goals.
“The first thing I wanted to do was go vote,” he said. “I couldn’t for this election because it was already after the registration deadline. It’s a good feeling though. I just enjoy knowing that I can vote. It’s really a great feeling to be a citizen. It’s a privilege, especially from where I come from.”
And Clerius will never forget where he came from.
“I want to graduate from school and do social work,” he said. “I want to be able to help people, anywhere. I know the struggle.”
That would be the best way to thank his mother, by becoming the “difference maker” that made Jean Eddy Clerius destined to be an American.