By Jerry Askin - News 6 Reporter
PINE HILLS, Fla. - Evans High School graduate Julien Serrano-O'Neil, 19, told News 6 he hopes his story of triumph and hardship will motivate and inspire other homeless and troubled youth that they can do whatever they put their minds to.
O'Neil is a sophomore at Morehouse College, majoring in political science with a minor in philosophy.
He said he was once homeless and grew up in a single-parent household.
"During my entire life, I had many challenges, some of which involved moving from place to place I never really stayed anywhere long enough to develop relationships or learn effectively, for that matter, missing many days of school and having to struggle to catch up," O'Neil said. "I found myself in a place that has been all too familiar to me and that was being homeless and living in shelters."
O'Neil was born in New York City and lived in many cities as a child, eventually moving with his father to Pine Hills when he was 11 years old after his parents separated. He said during his senior year of high school, he was an unaccompanied youth and had to make it on his own.
"Around my junior and senior year, I ended up homeless and had (to) choose to move out of Orange County or find a place to stay," O'Neil said.
O'Neil says he grew up around gangs and crime, but he chose to make positive choices and always remembered his purpose. He also told News 6 crime is everywhere, and his background has helped define the man that he's still becoming.
"Yes, I've seen crime and I've seen gangs in Pine Hills. However, that is an everywhere issue. Pine Hills, Florida receives such a bad name. However, the people of Pine Hills are simply amazing, producing students like myself and even better."
After graduating at the top of his class, O'Neil said he received almost a full scholarship to his dream school, Morehouse College, a historically black college in Atlanta. He said he received scholarships from the Bonner Foundation and the United Foundation of Central Florida.
"Under Evans High School and Federal TRIO Program, I attended Morehouse College for several summers meeting the professors and the students. It showed me that it was the right place to be because it had so many people who are just like me and intellectually driven in their strong suits," O'Neil said. "Morehouse is an institution that fosters black male talent, greater than any other school. An institution that develops minds who will lead lives of leadership and service."
Now a sophomore at Morehouse, O'Neil told News 6 he wants to continue to motivate and mentor homeless and troubled youth, encouraging them that they can make it despite their background.
O'Neil said he doesn't want his community to be defined by crime or his story to be overshadowed by negativity. He's extremely grateful for the many mentors, teachers and community leaders who guided him along the way.
"It was the leadership of the United Foundation of Central Florida, Inc. and their many partners that believed in me and supported me every step of the way, ensuring that I wouldn't remain homeless and that I wouldn't have to leave Evans High School and Orange County. Through United Foundation of Central Florida, I became very active in community engagement through the many opportunities that were provided to all students. I served as the President of Future Leaders United and the first President of our Youth Advisory Committee with Orange County Community Action Division at the Pine Hills Community Center, creating and developing programming for the youth of our community. Through this exposure, I was able to greater develop my passion for community service and improving the lives of others," O'Neil said.
O'Neil said giving back keeps him motivated.
"Only a year removed from high school, I donated $1,000 to a graduating senior from the class of 2018 that will be attending Clark Atlanta University, one of the many college/universities in the AUC Atlanta University including Morehouse College," O'Neil said.