ELLIS alum still degree-driven despite tragic loss

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Chantal Del Orbe’s life was changed forever after discovering the bodies of her mother and teenage brother.

Marisol Ortiz and Alanche Del Orbe — just a day shy of his 15th birthday — were stabbed and beaten to death last month in their Belmont apartment, according to published reports.

It had been just four years since the family moved to the city from the Dominican Republic in search of opportunity. Chantal enrolled at the English Language Learners and International Support Preparatory Academy at John F. Kennedy campus. After graduating, she journeyed on to Nyack College in south Manhattan to study criminal law.

But all that has changed. Her family is gone, and so is her East 185th Street home. Chantal might be lost, but many of her friends and teachers at ELLIS are banding together to help get her back on track.

Shawn Rosenburgh, Nyack’s Higher Education Opportunity Program assistant director, has started an online fundraising drive to help ensure Chantal has a place to live at the school. The program works with colleges to provide disadvantaged students the chance to earn a college education.

Chantal already attends the private Christian college on a full scholarship, but this effort also will ensure she has a dorm she can call home. At least for now.

“The HEOP family helps me a lot in everything I need,” Chantal said. “And they have surprised me with all the support they gave me in this difficult moment in my life. Right now, my goal is to finish college, which was what my mother wanted.”

Chantal worked toward that goal from the very beginning, even at her days at the Terrace View Avenue school. She was so ahead academically, in fact, that when Chantal first entered ELLIS, she skipped to the 11th grade. Back in the Dominican Republic, she even received training as a nurse.

“Her grades were excellent, and she was doing really well,” said Hedin Bernard, Chantal’s high school counselor. “She had a strong work ethic. She was a really good student and teachers saw her almost as a teacher’s assistant in her support for other students.”

ELLIS is built on a foundation of helping students from other countries reach their full potential, regardless of age or education level. When principal Norma Vega founded the school more than a decade ago, she did it with young adult immigrant students in mind, many who were typically funneled out to GED programs or the work force.

“She wanted to give them a quality high school education where they would get full English support and the full high school experience,” said Jacqueline Peña, college and career counselor at ELLIS. “She founded the school knowing there would be hurdles when educating young adults. Students wouldn’t be accepted into typical high schools.”

Yet colleges and universities still sometimes shy away from students who have lived in the United States for less than four years, Peña said. Many of those schools fear accepting these kinds of students will cause their graduation rates to drop.

“But we have proven otherwise for many, many, many years,” Peña said. “Once a college campus welcomes and opens their doors to ELLIS students, there’s a ripple effect, and they’re like, ‘We want more.’”

Chantal didn’t waste any time at ELLIS. She was the first student in Peña’s four years at the school to apply to college on her own. Chantal leaned on her mother for support. She looked to be a role model for Alanche.

“My brother,” Chantal said. “He was always playing with the children. Kind. No one ever gave a bad complaint about him, and it can be noticed by the amount of people and friends who gave him their last good-bye. I believe that in life I will not have someone like him. He and my mother were irreplaceable.”

Bernard can’t even begin to fully understand what Chantal is going through, but knows it’s tough.

“You never picture your students will go before you, which is something mirroring what parents say,” the school counselor said. “So that’s how it felt, that sort of situation, layer upon layer. It’s not just that they died. But they died tragically. It was highly emotional. Something that just makes you want to run to the student and support them completely.”

As of Tuesday, nearly $4,000 had been raised in the GoFundMe. But there’s still a ways to go to reach the $20,000 goal.

Chantal described her mother as atypical because of how free-spirited and liberal she was. Marisol Ortiz was always filled with advice and tips, her daughter said.

Now with her mother gone, Chantal tries to figure out her next steps. She has taken some time in the Dominican Republic to figure things out, but she’ll soon need to return to the city.

“About the Dominican Republic, I like everything,” Chantal said. “It is the country in which I was born, and it is so beautiful. And about the United States, it gives you many opportunities and allows for a person to grow.”

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