Kristen L Byrd, Special to The Catholic Virginian
Every weekday, 17-year old Brian and Gerson Carrera, and their mother, Blanca, make the 45-minute trip from their home on the south side of Richmond to Benedictine College Preparatory. They rise at 4:45 a.m. so they can arrive at school by 6:30 a.m., giving their mother enough time to get to her first job.
On the way, they finish up homework, study and prepare for the day. Once they reach River Road, the family begins to pray together, and they don’t stop until the car brakes at the entrance doors.
Brian and Gerson are twins and seniors at the Richmond school. While the $18,500 annual tuition for such an elite and reputable institution would normally be out of reach for them, the Carreras participate in the Corporate Internship Program, which pays for the majority of their tuition in exchange for 250 hours of work at a local organization during the school year. They see this as a small sacrifice for the education and experience they are receiving.
It is a long way from Guatemala, native country of the Carrera family. The boys have not been back since their mother brought them to the United States when they were nine. Their grandfather, who is almost 90, still lives in Guatemala, where he farms.
Upon arriving in the United States, the Carreras taught themselves English by watching cartoons like “Aladdin” and “Jimmy Neutron.” While ESL classes helped them learn the foundations of the language, it was through television and movies that they learned conversational English. Beginning with fourth grade, they attended St. Benedict School under a program that helps low-income families.
“We were lucky,” Gerson said. “They just started the program before we got there.”
They were given no shortcuts, however, and were expected to complete the same course load as their native-speaking classmates.
It was here their English skills were further honed — by taking Latin. Diagramming sentences and learning how to conjugate verbs helped them better understand grammar, which in turn helped them become fluent in English.
They also learned more about their Catholic faith by taking theology courses, something that made a lasting impact on both boys. They were required to write an essay each week, which simultaneously improved their writing skills and appreciation for religion.
Thriving after struggle
It was a difficult transition from life in Guatemala, where school days are shorter and their attendance was scattered due to family issues. They struggled at first, but by middle school the boys were thriving.
In eighth grade, they met Greg Lilly, admissions officer at Benedictine, and learned of the Corporate Internship Program. They were approved as participants and started to work at the Sacred Heart Center to fulfill the program’s requirements.
The twins soak up every ounce of Benedictine life they can: they are active in the cadets, choir, sports and are members of several clubs. One of the clubs is Emmaus, a vocation discernment group. Here, young men talk about their future in the faith and whether they plan to pursue the priesthood, married or single life. They also meet with seminarians and go on retreats. The boys are thankful to be at Benedictine, where a group like Emmaus is possible.
“Public schools have freedom of speech but not freedom to express yourself religiously,” Brian said.
Brian and Gerson are honor students, excelling in their AP courses, which is no small feat at Benedictine. In addition, they also work part time at Burger King to help with the family finances.
Some school nights they work until 12:30 in the morning, returning home to finish homework before squeezing in a few hours of sleep before they start the next day. Saturdays are spent helping their mother with errands in the morning and then working in the afternoon and evening. Sundays are reserved for church, where they worship and work.
“They provide a wonderful example for other youth in the parish — seemingly effortlessly combining strong faith with valuing their Guatemalan culture and striving to develop their potential through education and service to their community,” said Jesuit Father Shay Auerbach, pastor of the family’s parish, Sacred Heart, Richmond.
They arrive at 9 a.m. to help set up the church, serve Mass, do maintenance work, take care of the children and help with events before attending Mass again at night with their mother, and then heading home.
Inspired by Mom
While it may sound like a heavy load for any teenager, the twins appear to handle it with ease. They admit that it is sometimes hard, especially with the academic demands of Benedictine, but hard work is in their DNA — and they don’t have to look far for inspiration.
Their mother worked for years, saving money and earning a degree, in order to enter the United States legally. She works days in a factory and spends her evenings cleaning offices. When they were younger, she often brought her sons with her to help clean. It was here their strong work ethic was born. Faith has always been an important part of their upbringing, and the main reason they attend Benedictine is because it is faith-oriented. It is also committed to discipline and leadership, two qualities the boys feel are important. Their mother makes sure the family says the rosary every week and prays together nightly. This devotion to their faith is also reflected in their academic life.
Earn what they have
Benedictine headmaster Jesse Grapes said, “Brian and Gerson come from a loving, single-parent home. Their wonderful mother supports their transportation to school, work and sports. She also loves them enough to encourage them to earn everything they get, and not to wait for a handout.”
The Carreras take nothing for granted. While the Corporate Internship Program covers most of their tuition, it does not cover all the extra fees. Instead of burdening their mother with the expense, they took it upon themselves to find part-time jobs to cover the costs.
“These are hardworking young men. They have had to struggle for everything,” said William Doran, a theology teacher, as well as a choir director, soccer and tennis coach at Benedictine.
The two have made strong impressions with teachers, priests and students alike, with Gerson serving as Battalion Commander of the Corps of Cadets, the highest-ranking student in the school.
“He was selected because of his leadership, because of his personal strength and because of the respect he’s earned from his fellow cadets,” said Mike Forster, communications director of Benedictine.
Gerson is in charge of more than 250 cadets, with officers reporting to him daily. They have formation every morning and afternoon. Brian is a captain, another high-ranking position.
“You have to start out being a subordinate to eventually become a leader,” Gerson said.
“We lead through example,” Brian said, “Leadership starts with yourself and knowing what your values are. Knowing yourself is the first part of being a leader.”
While most sibling relationships tend to be somewhat competitive in nature, the twins are truly supportive of one another.
“We make each other stronger,” Brian said, “We become independent by helping each other.”
They work on their homework separately, but always reach out to each other if they are having trouble. If Brian is struggling with history, Gerson helps him, while Brian will help Gerson with biology.
“We have high expectations for each other,” Gerson said.
They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and counterbalance each other in ways that help them flourish individually.
Their futures look “dazzlingly bright,” according to Doran. Foster added, “They have all the upside you could want for young men in this position. I can’t imagine them not being successful in whatever they choose.”
“Any college and business will be fortunate to have them,” he said. “Their work ethic, kindness and grit will make them an incredible asset. Of course, I am praying for them both to become priests. The Church needs spiritual leaders like the Carrera boys!”
The boys are undecided as to where the future will lead them. They are considering the military and seminary. Now, however, they are focused on the task at hand and are making the most of their time at Benedictine.
“We’ve been given the opportunity to be here and it’s our duty to succeed,” Brian said. “We don’t want to let anyone down.”