Black teenager launches racial justice project in Nova Scotia
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Declan Rockwell was playing electric guitar when his phone rang with some great news.
He was onstage in the Three Oaks Senior High Christmas concert with the RnB band when he felt the call vibrate in his pocket.
“I thought nothing of it,” he said.
After the show, his family was waiting, excited, with the camera rolling, he remembers.
“They said, ‘Guess who’s going on exchange’, and I went crazy.”
Two years ago, Rotarian Angie Arsenault suggested Declan apply for a rotary exchange.
“It went in one ear and out the other. I thought ‘there’s no way that’s going to happen’,” he said.
“I want to get my life back together.”
Declan, 16, and his younger brother, Nicolas, 14, were newly reunited with their dad, Johnny.
As time went on, Declan’s optimism improved and he decided to apply.
Now, he's preparing for a trip overseas.
“I realized the sky’s the limit if you really believe in yourself and love yourself first,” said Declan.
“I realized the sky’s the limit if you really believe in yourself and love yourself first.”
- Declan Rockwell
When his parents split up, Declan, then 7, Nicolas, 5, and Johnny moved to Saint John, N.B. first and then later to P.E.I. from Sarasota, Fla.
But Johnny wasn’t coping well with the end of his marriage.
“He turned to the bottle,” said Declan.
Eventually, the boys ended up in foster care.
“All over the Island,” said Declan.
Unaware of what the boys were enduring, Johnny started on the road to recovery from alcohol addiction.
Friends, who became their church family at Summerside Christian Church, volunteered to provide weekend respite care for Declan and Nicolas
“Which was difficult, to say the least, but better than the alternative where I didn’t know who they were with or whether that foster family would even let me communicate with them - which was terrifying for me,” said Johnny.
Declan fell into a depression with the stress of the separation, combined with the abusive homes he and his brother lived in.
“My little brother, I shielded him from so much. I tried to keep him in a good mindset and happy, while I would [take] the physical and mental abuse. It’s where I really got my depression … I was very close to committing suicide, unfortunately. Very, very close.”
Declan was kept away from his father and his friends.
Eventually, Declan was able to sit down with a judge and tell him what was going on.
The boys were returned to their father.
Johnny can still hear the judge’s words in court that day.
“There’s no doubt that you love your children, Mr. Rockwell. The best place they can be is back with you.”
The family of three was the first to pass through the Strengthening Families program at the Boys and Girls Club in Summerside.
They are still strong three years later.
“It’s overwhelming to be here today, because I did not believe I’d be here today,” said Declan.
The boys go to school in the city, while Johnny works at the youth club.
“The biggest turnaround has been him,” said Declan.
The Grade 11 student said he's proud of his dad's recovery from addiction, and said he is "an amazing cook".
“He made ribs for (Wednesday night dinner at the Boys and Girls Club). And literally, his ribs were so good, that the program co-ordinator asked for him to work there. So now he’s basically the nutritionist for the club,” said Declan.
“He does so much, you know, a single dad with two kids. He works his butt of to enable us to have these opportunities.”
Looking back, Declan remembers himself as a “full-of-anxiety kid who would never want to speak out about anything”.
“I remember that kid,” said Arsenault who worked at the Boys and Girls club when Declan first joined.
Today, he's a different kid.
In August, Declan will travel to Belgium and enrol in school. He’s looking forward to representing his home.
“Canada’s one of the best countries in the world and I’m so proud to call myself a Canadian citizen.”
Even with Rotary’s support with tuition, room and board and a small monthly allowance, the student is responsible for the costs of passports and visas, flights, insurance and any incidental expenses while away.
So, Declan is fundraising.
“I have a team around me. My family, I’m so thankful for the fact that my family is helping me with this,” he said.
“(Angie) has really helped me get to the point that we’re at now.”
Before Christmas, Declan came up with a fundraiser and sold 500 numbered squares for $10. On Dec. 24, he drew a number to win half the pot.
In a surprise twist, the winner donated her winnings to Declan.
The “wonderful, wonderful” gift has taken a lot of weight off Johnny’s shoulders.
“Now it’s manageable, we can make this happen,” he said.
Anyone who wants to contribute to Declan’s exchange can contact Angie Arsenault at 902-303-4565 or Declan at email@example.com.