Wadley Pierre will never forget the sacrifice his Haitian mother made to give him a better life.
When he boarded a plane 12 years ago set for the United States, all he carried was the bag on his back and the hope of achieving the American Dream.
Now, just months away from graduating among the top 10 percent of his class at Lehigh Senior High School with a weighted 4.76 GPA, the 18-year-old Pierre is doing what his mother, Jizreelle Bazil, envisioned for him.
Ivy League schools Princeton and Yale have granted him interviews as part of their admissions process, the University of Tampa has accepted his enrollment and military service remains an option in his future, too.
He will leave Lehigh as a JROTC captain, as a high performing athlete in football and track and field, as an accomplished artist who’s been paid by his peers to complete artwork and as an exemplary student who attends the Cambridge program, AVID and the Center for the Visual Arts.
His expansive body of work stood out to the U.S. Army and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which honored Pierre at a school-wide assembly on Thursday to announce his recognition as one of 20 finalists around the nation for the Award of Excellence, a fourth-year award that recognizes athletic achievement, excellence in academics and community engagement.
“He’s a kid who’s overcome every single adversity,” Lehigh principal Jackie Corey said. “Every single challenge, he just gives back. He tackles every barrier. He’s involved in the community, he’s involved as an athlete, he’s a scholar, he’s a role model, he’s respectful and he just excels in everything.”
Pierre was introduced by future Pro Football Hall of Famer, linebacker Kevin Greene, who spoke about the merits of working hard and dedicating oneself to a mission.
In April, another Southwest Florida nominee will be granted the same respect for her own merits.
Ida Baker junior Thalia Fernandez, a cross country and track and field student-athlete who performs in marching band, is a command sergeant in the JROTC and served as the class president for two years, was named a finalist as well.
She holds a 4.0 GPA and has set her sights on attending West Point.
“It says a lot about our county that we have two finalists,” Fernandez said. “We’re really good at a lot of things and it’s great that there’s more recognition for us.”
Pierre and Fernandez will attend the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Enshrinement Weekend on Aug. 6 in Canton, Ohio. The winner will be announced at a special luncheon. The nominees will also attend the 2016 Enshrinement Game, where Greene will be admitted into the Hall of Fame.
Pierre says his life is the embodiment of his mother’s sacrifice. He speaks to her once a week and sees her once a year on his birthday. He says his father was never in his life.
“As a mother, sending her child overseas and seeing them once or twice a year, I can imagine that may be difficult for her,” Pierre said. “But she wanted a better future and a better education for me. So I understand the sacrifice.”
He’s lived with his aunt, Theresa Oscar, for the past 12 years and has matured under the guidance of his cousin, Tass Oscar, who taught him moral principles.
“From him, I learned how to be a man and how sometimes you have to take responsibilities outside your own,” he said.
Pierre has become a model student and citizen. He speaks three languages, including Creole and French. He joined Omega Psi Phi, which is a community outreach group that helps young men become better role models in the community. He works on the side as a waiter at Crowne Plaza.
He’s spared time for Toys for Tots drives, plans on mentoring during a Heroes Day for young children in the county and also performs road cleanups with JROTC.
He joined the military service group his junior year and advanced up the ranks quickly, going from private first class to captain in two years.
“Day 1 when he was in here, he wanted to get involved,” Lehigh senior army instructor Tim Walter said. “One of the students carries the guide. It’s the tradition of cadets. He said, ‘What do I have to do?’ So we put him up, even though he wasn’t the best.
“He’s just such a great leader and the example he sets, the kids follow him.”
On the field, Pierre is a three-year starter on the Lightning football team. He set personal records in the 110- and 300-meter hurdles. One of his football coaches, Nicholas Dysert, taught him in AP macroeconomics and government and said he was “the one who always started asking the questions.”
He has performed for Lehigh’s step team, and on Thursday, during an assembly recognizing his own achievement, he took time to recognize someone else, Amara Ezenwa, whom he asked to prom.
Most say that’s an inherent Pierre quality. He thinks of others before himself.
“Right now, my goal is to pay my mom back for the sacrifice she made in sending me here,” Pierre said. “And I feel like this is filling that goal and that dream.”
Pierre feels like his opportunity is one he created for himself.
“It’s not your background that defines you,” he said. “It’s the journey that’s who you are.”