New York Times Neediest Cases

A Family Emerges Even Closer From Times of Darkness - New York Times

Over the course of 10 months in the Negron household, starting in spring 2014, darkness became routine.

With the family’s electricity shut off because of nonpayment, the youngest child, Nelson, 13, used a battery-powered lantern on his short walk from the kitchen to the cluttered bedroom he shares with his two older brothers. An extension cord snaked from a neighbor’s apartment to theirs, in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, giving them just enough power to keep the refrigerator cold.

Homework got finished before sundown, if it got finished at all, with the boys relying on candles to extend the light of winter days.

So after the power came back on in February 2015, Nelson’s oldest brother, Angel, 21, decided the family needed to do something to celebrate. They decided to buy a birthday gift for their father, Jesus: tickets for the family to a Legends of Wrestling event at Citi Field.

It featured the biggest legend of all, as far as the Negrons were concerned: Bret Hart, a grizzled Canadian whose pecs once bulged from a magenta tank top.

“You can actually feel his power,” Nelson recalled of shaking Mr. Hart’s hand during a meet and greet after the match. “He’s just awesome. If things don’t go his way, he manages to get what he wants.”

Financial problems had put the Negrons’ daily needs out of reach during their 10 months without electricity. They were also on the verge of eviction.

Mr. Negron, 40, lost his custodial job when the day care he worked for ran out of money, he said. His wife, Martha Torres, 40, worked in a hospital’s medical billing department, but she did not earn enough to cover the Consolidated Edison bill in addition to rent and food for the boys, Nelson, Angel and Jesus Jr., 18.

Nelson — serious beyond his years, with a round face that lights up when he talks about math class or his brothers — recalled students’ bullying one another during his early years at public school. Making do without electricity only made him grow up faster, he said.

His father, too, knew the rigors of getting by in Hunts Point, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. Mr. Negron grew up without his father around and found an escape in watching wrestling matches with a brother who was around his age.

“He was a mean drunk sometimes, and sometimes he was a happy drunk,” Mr. Negron said of his father, adding, “Wrestling kind of became our escape — that was our bond.”

Mr. Negron had gone to the same public school that educated his older two sons but wanted a safer and more supportive environment for his youngest son. So the family pushed for Nelson to attend St. Ignatius School. The Jesuit school, which is affiliated with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, paid Nelson’s tuition in full.

The school provides social services, after-school programs and summer camp. It tries to steer students to college by finding them scholarships to strong high schools outside Hunts Point and by offering counseling and college planning.

Nelson’s first year there was overshadowed by the family’s financial problems, but the school helped by hiring Mr. Negron as a part-time custodian. In August, when a full-time position became available, Mr. Negron got the job.

Catholic Charities, one of the seven agencies supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, also gave the family $340 from the fund to help Nelson buy a laptop, a book bag and a school gym uniform.

Angel, who works as a cashier at a Duane Reade, decided to use his salary to help carry on two family traditions — surprises and wrestling-themed gatherings — with the event at Citi Field.

It signified the family’s “coming back to life,” Mr. Negron said.

Still, the family has had trouble paying back rent from the months when Mr. Negron was unemployed. They were threatened with eviction this month, but Mr. Negron has been working with Catholic Charities to get help covering the shortfall.

Now Mr. Negron and Nelson see each other in the hallways of St. Ignatius. Nelson does not shy away from saying hello, as some 13-year-olds may — an acknowledgment, his father said, of all they have been through together.

“He says it loud and clear, gives me a smile,” Mr. Negron said. “When I see him, he lightens up.”

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