The Story from a Big Brother

Dan Gelber, A82, writes about his friendship with a boy from a tough Miami neighborhood, and Travis Thomas, D17, describes how that enduring relationship brought him to Tufts
Dan Gelber and Travis Thomas
“Our backgrounds couldn’t have been more different, but we found common interests: sports, hanging out at the mall, going to bad Steven Seagal movies,” writes Dan Gelber. Travis Thomas is now in his third year at Tufts School of Dental Medicine.
December 17, 2015

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I first joined the Big Brothers Big Sisters program while a Tufts undergraduate. My roommate, Rich Edlin, A82, signed me up to help mentor twin boys from Medford. It was pretty easy. We did entirely ordinary things with the boys—watched football and played basketball or watched basketball and played football.

Somehow doing ordinary things seemed less ordinary. It felt good.

When I returned home to Miami after law school, I joined my local Big Brothers chapter, with hopes of continuing the experience. Big Brothers matched me with a six-year-old gap-toothed boy living in an impoverished Miami neighborhood I knew only as a place to avoid driving through. That’s how I met Travis.

Travis was abandoned by his father at birth, and his mother struggled with substance abuse. He bounced around among relatives, neglected so much that a great aunt eventually took him in and agreed to care for him. She became his only caretaker, and called Big Brothers Big Sisters to give Travis some additional influences in his life.

Our backgrounds couldn’t have been more different, but we found common interests during our weekly get-togethers: sports, hanging out at the mall, going to bad Steven Seagal movies (a redundant phrase) and cruising around in my 1966 Wimbledon white Mustang convertible.

I liked having a little kid I could boss around; he liked knowing someone who could drive; we both liked having a brother. And I finally had someone to give my hand-me-downs to. Travis looked good in my oversized Tufts Jumbo T-shirts.

I also appreciated getting a view of a world I knew little of. I had an interest in public service, and while I was able to return home after our weekend outings, what Travis confronted all the time was both eye-opening and moving.

Travis’ life wasn’t easy, and his prospects were uncertain. Through the years, I watched as his childhood friends went to jail, or died, or faded into the vortex of the inner city. His aunt—whose home was surrounded by abandoned dwellings that usually hosted crack dealers—did all she could to keep those influences away from him. She also made sure Travis had faith in his life.

But I always held my breath, hoping he would escape the fate of so many others. I had become a federal prosecutor, and in that role had seen my share of people whose lives had jumped the tracks.

Dan Gelber with Travis Thomas at his college graduation. Photo: Courtesy of Dan Gelber Travis had a work ethic, but lacked a seriousness of purpose, especially about school. I tried to push and prod and even bribe, but it didn’t seem to take.

But we stuck together through the years. When I met Joan, he proudly stood by me at my wedding. He was only 13.

Over the next decade, Travis watched me grow a family and saw the joy it brought me. He saw my vintage Mustang get replaced with a Honda minivan, and Hannah Montana elbow out Steven Seagal. He held each of my infant children, and saw me embrace the responsibility of being a spouse and a parent.

But Travis couldn’t seem to find his own way. He graduated high school, but each time he enrolled in a junior college, he quickly withdrew to return to the Miami streets. Like half the kids in his neighborhood, he developed a life plan based on pursuing a career as a rap star. At best it was a pipe dream. At worst, it would lead him nowhere good.

I was beginning to lose hope. Travis was slipping away.

Then Travis met a girl and fell in love, and things seemed to change. They wanted a family, so he shelved his rap career and asked me for help getting a job. I found him a position working for a friend’s extermination company. Travis was assigned the night shift. After three nights of chasing rodents in the dark he called, told me he’d had enough and asked if he could go back to school, again.

We enrolled him at Miami Dade College with hopes he could earn a two-year degree. This time he didn’t walk away. He soon married his girlfriend, Wilsa, in a beautiful ceremony. I was his best man, beaming in my rented Creamsicle-colored tux.

As Travis and Wilsa prepared for the birth of their child, he became even more serious. He told me he wanted to become a dentist, a profession that had interested him since childhood, when he’d been teased about the large gap between his front teeth.

I worried his goal was totally unrealistic. I even suggested to him that maybe he was aiming too high, and should consider something more attainable. My wife, Joan, really let me have it when she heard I’d tried to tamp down his aspirations.

So we went all in and, more importantly, so did Travis. He studied for every test like it would decide his future—like he would be left chasing rats on the night shift if he failed. He graduated from Miami Dade College with a two-year degree and enrolled at nearby Nova Southeastern University on an academic scholarship. There he sought out health science courses. By now, Travis was a driven student, regularly making the dean’s list and never giving up on his dream of being a dentist.

During all this time he continued to live in the same tiny house he was raised in, sharing it with his elderly aunt and other relatives. His young family made do by living in the dining room, which provided only a smidgen of separation from the angry neighborhood outside.

As he had vowed, Travis took the dental school admission test. I held my breath again. What would happen to him if he fell short? I wished Joan had not convinced me to bless this path.

They gave Travis his scores as he left the testing center. He called me as he walked out. He scored in the 93rd percentile overall, and his organic chemistry score was over 97 percent. He was so proud. I was without words. Joan wept.

Travis applied to dental schools across the country. Friends chipped in unused frequent flyer miles to get him to his interviews, and he borrowed luggage, ties and overcoats to look professional.

Here is how he answered a dental school application that asked if he believed he grew up “disadvantaged”:

I grew up in one of Miami’s poorest neighborhoods. I was abandoned by many who you would think would have nurtured me, and raised by my grandmother’s aunt. I remember, as a young boy, hiding inside my house for days after a drive-by shooting. But through it all, people—sometimes perfect strangers—inspired me to never give up and to always believe in myself. So yes, I did have a disadvantaged life by most definitions, but that life has made me better prepared and more appreciative of the opportunities and blessings I do have.

Dental programs across the country wanted him. Many offered scholarships. I thought staying in Florida made the most sense, believing it would be too difficult for him to start anew in another state.

Once again, Joan disassembled my argument, contending Travis and his family had every right to define their future on their terms. So Travis pulled out my old hand-me-down T-shirts and decided Tufts was where he wanted to be. It wasn’t because of me at all. Rather, it was because after his interview, the dean had pulled him aside, put his hand on Travis’ shoulder, and told him that the school believed in him.

That’s all Travis needed to hear. That’s all he’s ever needed to hear.

At the conclusion of his first year at Tufts School of Dental Medicine, I attended his white coat ceremony, marking his transition to the clinical side of his education. I think I must have got some dust in both eyes. At the end of his second year his grades continue to be exceptional.

Travis recently announced he might become an oral surgeon or a prosthodontist. I believe him.

Dan Gelber, A82, a former Florida state senator, practices law in Miami. At Tufts he was a Truman Scholar.

 

From the Little Brother: He Never Gave Up on Me

By Travis Thomas, D17

I can remember meeting Dan Gelber for the first time like it was yesterday. I was just six and playing in the street with friends when my Aunt Ruth opened the screen door and yelled Travisss! I rushed home and stationed myself on the couch by the living room window, anxiously watching every car that passed by. Finally one pulled up. It was Dan! He took me for ice cream.

Travis Thomas, D17, says he might want to become an oral surgeon or a prosthodontist. Photo: Kelvin MaAs a kid, I looked forward to spending a Saturday or Sunday with Dan because I knew we would have fun—even if I just went out with him for lunch or a movie, or watched him play pick-up basketball (he needed the moral support). Our outings usually concluded with a trip to the bookstore and a few words of wisdom.

Dan never missed the opportunity to sermonize about reading and education. Public service is huge in his family, and he shared its importance with me, whether that meant I tagged along to a festival for children battling cancer or helped him distribute gifts to other kids. I remember the time I got two garbage bags filled with toys, only to find out he expected me to keep just one toy and give the rest away to the kids in my neighborhood (Dan was a star on my block!).

As I grew older, though, Dan’s influence seemed to reach me less and less. I was no longer the adorable six-year-old Dan took for ice cream. Like most of my friends, I sported a gold grill, had a hip-hop swag and knew all of the drug dealers on my block. Clearly, I was going in a different direction. Maybe I had lost faith in myself and figured I wasn’t worthy, but I began to let go of the person I had called my big brother for more than a decade. Dan was starting his own family, and once I turned 18, I decided our relationship would end.

Dan would have none of it. He continued to remain a fixture in my life.

No matter what I thought of myself, Dan let me know he believed in me. Whatever doubts I had about myself, Dan had none. Eventually all those bookstore visits and sermons started to sink in. I met my wife, and we had our son—and for the first time I believed that maybe I could control my future.

Since my father didn’t raise me, I looked to Dan for guidance. I saw his honesty, his drive, his humility and most of all his love for his family. And when I decided to return to college for the third time, his family supported me in every way. There was no way I was letting them down! His wife, Joan, became one of my big supporters, and when I mentioned becoming a dentist to her, she urged me to “go for it.” And that’s when I realized she was smarter than Dan.

Dan didn’t have to volunteer to spend his time with me. He could have said coming into my neighborhood was too risky. Or he could have simply given up on me when I had given up on myself. But he didn’t. That is why I am paying it forward by caring for my own half-brother, who is in a situation nearly identical to the one that I was once in.

I know that I am succeeding in school because I work hard. But I also know that I would not be here if I didn’t have a big brother who taught me to believe in myself.

Dan, your little brother is going to be a dentist! Remember to floss.

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