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John Paradis: How a man’s dream lifts him up from childhood tragedy

Through his big smile, he shares something from the heart — a hug without the contact.

In an age that sociologists and others have labeled the era of cynicism, we need more Javier Riveras. The 29-year-old brings spirit to everything he does, whether classes at Holyoke Community College, drumming in his band, or being a dad with his 9-year-old daughter.

Rivera says it’s tough for young adults today. Adolescents in particular, he says, have enormous fear — fear of the future, fear of failure, fear of being alone.

He calls his age gruop the “Lost Generation” — the post-9/11 generation of young Americans where war and violence, and domestic terrorism and security checks are the norm, and where the Great Recession and global economic meltdown have created disinterest in the world around us and disaffection with government.

And peer pressure, in his mind, is worse than what he experienced as a teenager. The Holyoke High 2002 graduate says it’s actually cool to not be happy today. And, if you’re not happy, there’s always a quick fix, whether it be drugs, alcohol or sex.

Javier knows what he’s talking about. It’s taken him 20 years to get beyond his own fear and feelings of isolation. His mental memory card runs deep.

On Dec. 16, 1992, his 27-year-old mother, Michelle Terhune, was stabbed to death at her Holyoke apartment by her former boyfriend and Javier’s stepfather. Javier, 8 at the time, was returning home from school.

Javier says he grew up fast, being raised by an aunt and uncle. He never knew his biological father who was a mythical figure back in Puerto Rico where Javier was born. His mother moved to Holyoke when Javier was 3. His father died a few years ago, and his stepfather took his own life in MCI-Norfolk.

At 15, Javier left home and never looked back. He married at 20, had a child, and divorced seven years later. He got laid off from his job as a supervisor and cook at a local lounge and restaurant where he thought he could win financial stability.

He faced depression, anxiety and anger management issues. He is a recovering alcoholic and used liquor to self-medicate.

“I’ve seen very dark times,” says Javier. “I was a mess. Honestly, I shouldn’t even be alive.” His daughter, Lily Michelle, named for his mother, inspired him to change his life. When you have a child, he says, being a parent means being the best person you can be.

So he got help. He found out that you have to like yourself before you can care for others.

“So many people are not happy with themselves,” he says. “But you have to stay true to yourself. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters — is how you see you. You go into the world alone and you leave this world alone.”

He reads about personal transformation and believes positive energy can have a wondrous effect on you and the people you work with and love. His band, “Boom & the Soundshakers,” plays upbeat funk and reggae at backyard parties and at local hangouts like The Elevens on Pleasant Street in Northampton. He promises to get you dancing.

He talks a lot about his daughter. They love to read together and share books. After love, an appreciation for reading is the most important gift a parent can give to a child, he says.

He started part time in the kitchen at the Soldiers’ Home, doing anything he was asked to do. He then shifted to full time in housekeeping when the opportunity arose.

In May, he completed a training program through Holyoke Works at the Home and passed his certified nursing assistant examination. He’ll be on the Home’s nursing staff soon. Becoming a licensed practical nurse is next on his horizon. After that, who knows? He’s taking full advantage of free tuition as a state employee at a state college. A registered nurse or even a medical doctor, he says. Javier dreams big.

Find something you love, he says. Be passionate about it and find a way to make a living doing it.

Then he pauses. He’s more serious than at any point I’ve seen him. Be fearless like the veterans we care for, he says. “Don’t be afraid of what lies ahead. Be confident in who you are. You have to appreciate each and every day.” Javier has faced down his demons and now, working at the Soldiers’ Home caring for veterans, he has another message: Cherish life, serve others, and change the world. “That’s ultimately why we are all here,” he says.

Then the big smile returns, before he gets back to work. “And be you.”

John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a monthly column that appears on the second Friday. He is the communications director for the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke.

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