Sapphire Jack has followed God to find his way in the world

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Looking ahead: Sapphire Jack attends a luncheon on May 15 to honor youths, including himself, who have excelled despite difficult obstacles. 

Sapphire Tyrese Jack, a student at the LaSalle School, was honored last week by the Rotary Club of Albany. Two days before the celebratory luncheon where he was given his award, he said, “I’m excited about it. I’m proud of myself. I never thought I’d win.”

He is a long way from his boyhood home in Guyana, and he now dreams of attending the University at Albany when he graduates from high school in two years.

James LaFave, the campus minister at the LaSalle School in Albany, who sponsored Sapphire in his recent baptism and confirmation in the Catholic Church, said Sapphire has been a student at LaSalle for two years and is in the school’s independent-living dormitory, an earned privilege.

“He’s always willing to help,” said LaFave. “He’s our go-to student,” he said, noting that Sapphire helps teachers as well as residential staff. “He’s very conscientious.”

For more than three decades, the Rotary Club of Albany has hosted a celebratory spring luncheon to honor six exceptional youths in foster care. The program is the brainchild of Brian Barr, who lives in Westmere.

The club honors a youth from each of six agencies — St. Catherine’s Center for Children, Parsons Child and Family Center, the LaSalle School, St. Anne Institute, Community Maternity Services, and Equinox — who has demonstrated strength or accomplishment.

“They’ve been taken out of the mainstream of life, and are dealing with significant obstacles,” Barr told The Enterprise earlier. “They’re not forgotten by the community. We want to make sure they’re affirmed by the community. We appreciate and recognize them.”

LaFave said he couldn’t get into the particulars that had brought Sapphire to the LaSalle School. “All our kids are court-ordered or adjudicated,” he said.

He did say that, when the time came for the LaSalle staff to select this year’s honoree, “Sapphire led the pack.” LaFave went on, “He did a 180 from when he first got here. He’s still dealing with issues, but aren’t we all?”

Describing Sapphire’s personality, LaFave said, “He’s very artistic. He likes to write poetry … He’s very outgoing. But at the luncheon, he’ll be Mr. Shy with all these strangers looking at him.”

Sapphire’s journey

Sapphire and his older brother lived with their aunt in New Amsterdam, the seat of the colonial Dutch government in Guyana in the 1700s. It’s a coastal town, on the Atlantic Ocean, with a population of about 30,000.

“My mom came to the U.S. I stayed with my aunt until I was 9,” Sapphire said.

His grandmother, Marilyn Mentor, came up with the boys’ names — two gems, Emerald and Sapphire.

Sapphire characterized the weather of his South American home as “warm, sometimes rainy.”

Describing a typical day there, he said, “I’d get up, brush my teeth, get ready for school.” He walked to school with his brother and cousins.

After a morning of learning, they would walk home for lunch, and then walk back to school. There were no school sports, and Sapphire enjoyed writing in cursive.

His aunt is a good cook and often made rice with stew, he said.

When he moved to Albany in 2011, as a fourth-grader, Sapphire recalled, “The hardest thing was my accent. I was made fun of. They called it ‘broken English.’ I got into a couple of fights. I learned to ignore it.”

He also said, “A couple of kids helped me out.”

When he first got to the LaSalle School, Sapphire said, “I got in trouble. I went AWOL and was fighting.”

What turned his life around, he said, was the church. “I started going to church. It helped a lot. I learned more about God … I decided to get baptized.”

The ceremony took place the night before this past Easter. “We started outside with a fire. We did songs and readings, and then went inside,” he recalled. Inside the church there was music and readings from scriptures.

Of the baptism itself, Sapphire said, “You kneel, you bow down, and have water put on your head … I was happy.”

A 10th-grader now, Sapphire would like to go to the University at Albany. His favorite subject is global history. “I find the past interesting,” he said. “I like geography.” He also likes studying ancient times.

He also likes doing community service with his classmates. Sapphire particularly enjoys volunteering at an animal shelter and at a food bank. “I just like helping people,” he said.

His mother, Oseta Mentor, works at St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany on insurance claims, he said. “She’s hardworking and loving.”

His favorite book is “The Hate U Give.” The novel, by Angie Thomas, has a protagonist that is the same age as Sapphire — 16. An African-American, she lives in a black neighborhood but attends a white private school, having to balance the two worlds.

“Her friend gets shot,” says Sapphire. Her best childhood friend, an African American, is shot dead, during a traffic stop, by a white policeman. She watches him die.

“It ends with a standoff,” Sapphire said. “The girl says, ‘Why can’t we live in peace.’”

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