From Jail To Honor Roll, Hartford High Graduate Took Hard Road To College
City's Top Swimmer Faced Obstacles Beyond Pool
Twenty-five yards ahead stood his swimmer, the 19-year-old senior built like a boxer, preparing to mount the starting block for the biggest race of his life.
Domingo Galarza was the top Hartford swimmer to qualify for the state Class L swimming championship at Wesleyan University this year. He swam the 50-yard freestyle, a power sprint, but his favorite was the butterfly, the most grueling of the four strokes.
The fly was new to Galarza when he joined the Hartford Public High School swim team as a sophomore in late 2009, shortly after he entered the school's Law and Government Academy by way of the Manson Youth Institution, the high-security juvenile correctional facility in Cheshire.
Galarza's roughness smoothed over with toil and time. He became the swim captain; a summer lifeguard for the city of Hartford; and a gentleman beloved by teachers who graduated Friday with the Class of 2012.
Galarza is headed to Johnson & Wales University in Providence this fall as one of about 550 students committed to the Connecticut Department of Children and Families who attend college with the state's financial support of more than $5 million a year.
"Domingo's success is not determined by a stopwatch," Bellucci said. "I just want him to be happy."
But on the night of the state meet, with his foster dad in the stands and Bellucci on edge, Galarza had one last chance to break the school's 100 butterfly record, set in 1989.
"Scrappy, like a barn cat," Principal Adam Johnson said.
"He had no punctuation, no capitalization," said Thomas Baldino, an English as a second language teacher at Hartford High. "He had no concept of a paragraph."
"He came in a third of the way into the year, right after Thanksgiving, into geometry class," said Vicki Kuziak, who would eventually teach Galarza precalculus. "I still remember — 'Where did you come from, Domingo?'"
"'I came out of jail,'" Galarza said he told her. "Just like that, straight up."
Galarza's troubles started early; his childhood a haze of dysfunction. There are memories of moving from Puerto Rico to a New York shelter, living there until child protection officials removed him and his five siblings from their mother's custody when he was 5. He grew up angry with a foster family, forced, he said, to take medication through his elementary years.
"I would fight every day in school," Galarza said. Yet the pills, supposedly to calm him, "depressed me ... got me skinny ... got me weak."
His mother regained custody when Galarza was around 10. Back in Puerto Rico, off the meds, a cousin taught the boy to swim by pushing him into the deep end. As a 15-year-old, after Galarza's father died of a stroke, he moved to his sister's home in Hartford, he said. Eight relatives lived in a crowded apartment.
The trip to Manson came in summer '09. No one was injured in the family scuffle, but it happened about a month after he was caught with brass knuckles at Weaver High School late in his freshman year, Galarza and school officials said.
The arrest for carrying a weapon landed him in anger management. After the family fight, Galarza said, he cut off his court-ordered ankle bracelet and waited for the cops to take him away.
Galarza told his public defender he would rather enter the Connecticut foster system than return to his family's chaos after the two-month Manson stint. Almost 17, the sophomore was freed to a new home and school.
Bellucci, a physical education teacher at Hartford High, pulled Galarza aside that fall. The veteran coach noticed his strength in the pool, but also the "unfocused anger," as assistant coach Ryan Barnicle would later describe it.
"You're here now, and nobody knows who you are, or what happened to you before you came here," Bellucci told him.
"'What matters is what you do now,'" Galarza remembered him saying. "That stuck with me."
'They Looked So Happy'
Janier Caban-Hernandez, the director of Greater Hartford's AIDS Legal Network, never really liked children, an admission punctuated by his friendly, raspy chuckle.
But teenagers? They can be negotiated with, the 55-year-old said. His motto: "You don't earn my respect and trust in this house, you only lose it."
Caban-Hernandez lived alone in New Haven until 2006, when he fell in love with an old house on the market in south Hartford. Within a week, he had a contract on the home. Suddenly, Caban-Hernandez had nine rooms all to himself.
His car sputtered dead and so he bought a sport utility vehicle to haul his belongings.
"It just so happened that I became a foster dad," he said, "and my rooms are now rooms for the boys, and my Rav4 always has kids in it."
The transition was gradual. After the move, Caban-Hernandez, without children of his own, befriended four young Latinos in foster care who liked to chat and raid his fridge. Eventually they encouraged him to become licensed as a foster parent. Now he facilitates the state-mandated parenting classes for applicants, having fostered about 15 teenage boys since 2008.
Galarza was placed with him in September 2009 — "such a rough kid," Caban-Hernandez said, cagey and battling a desire to return to Puerto Rico. Galarza confided that his first foster father in New York punched him in the eye when he was 8 or 9, after a bad day at school. Galarza said his biological dad also showed an aggressive streak.
It took a few months and a team of advisers that included coaches and a DCF social worker before Galarza trusted his newfound stability.
"The first time that I met his family," Galarza said of Caban-Hernandez's relatives, "they looked so happy, they looked so different from mine."
And at home, the teen had everything he wanted. Dinner around the table. The responsibility of homework and chores. A mentor — "being courteous is never old-fashioned," Caban-Hernandez counseled — and someone to greet him hello or wish a good night.
"When I go home, Janier is right at the door. He says, 'Hi, how was your day at school today?'" said Galarza, the oldest of four teenagers currently fostered at the house. "My sister never told me that. My dad never told me that. My mom did, but you always want your dad to tell you that, you know? ...
"My father who passed away, I loved him, because you always love your father no matter how he is," Galarza said. "But he wasn't a father who I really wanted to have ... to be there with me, to always have my back.
"Janier has always been there for me."
Shot At The Record
On March 14, after three winters in the Hartford High pool, the captain's final shot came in the clamor of Wesleyan's Freeman Athletic Center, competing against the experienced swimmers of Greater Hartford, New Haven County and Connecticut's gold coast. But it wasn't about beating them.
"It's a race within a race," Bellucci said before the 100-yard butterfly final.
Galarza promised decent grades when he joined the Owls swim team, then far exceeded the C-minimum, treating school like a job, just as Caban-Hernandez directed. The first time Galarza saw his name on an honors list, the teen said, it was a pride he never felt before.
The butterfly became the outlet for his frustrations. The stroke with a dolphin kick amazed him as a kid in Puerto Rico.
Bellucci "told me I could learn it," Galarza said. "I had the power."
Galarza practiced about three hours a day as leader of a rookie, ragtag team that lost all but one meet this year. The school's butterfly record of 57.7 seconds, however, seemed breakable. That goal drove the season.
Barnicle suggested he take a few bites of a banana before the start. Galarza replied that he felt like throwing up. "Every race I do," he said, "I always overthink it."
Galarza's first 50 yards looked strong, his teammates cheering a split under 27 seconds, but then water seemed to weigh on the shoulders and Bellucci barreled to the ledge of his swimmer's lane, the coach's chest to the tile, shouting for Galarza to go faster, to push harder, until it was all over and Bellucci glanced at the scoreboard.
The official time: 59.64, last in a final round of 24.
"You just want the kid to do well — for him," Bellucci said. The coaches waited to see how Galarza would react.
The senior toweled off. After several minutes, he smiled.
"Three years doing the butterfly and I made the state finals," Galarza concluded. "Even though I didn't get the school record, I'm still proud."
'A Sound Investment'
Summer orientation for Johnson & Wales starts on Monday. Galarza, an amateur cook, plans to explore a new world at the culinary college. The state will contribute about $22,000 annually for his education, and a few Hartford scholarships will also help freshman year.
Foster teens can choose to remain in DCF care through college, which the agency pays for up to the cost of attending Central Connecticut State University. Funding typically ends at age 21, although DCF Commissioner Joette Katz has granted waivers through age 23.
DCF officials said the state paid a projected $5.3 million for 546 students to attend college this fiscal year.
"In this particular fiscal climate, a piece of me hesitates to shine a light on it," Katz said. But, she argued, there are worse alternatives. "Children in foster care have all been through traumatic experiences. ... It's a sound investment in their future, and a sound investment in everybody's future."
Last week, during a senior awards ceremony at the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Galarza took to the stage and wept. He thanked teachers, Bellucci and a man in the audience: "My dad."
Galarza may move away, Caban-Hernandez said, but "he's always going to have his home."