Michael Hernandez had all the cards stacked against him. Abused, neglected, feeling alone, he remade himself into a leader at Hialeah Senior High School after a nightmare childhood in foster care.
"For many nights I cried myself to sleep, I doubted myself a lot, I would look into the world and feel completely alone but my main drive was, where do I want to see myself?" Michael said.
The answer was always, at the top. Michael became the drum major of the Marching Thoroughbreds Band and led them to consecutive state titles, and he’s in the top 3 percent of his graduating class.
"Nothing’s ever given to you in this world for free, you have to work for it, so that’s my main philosophy so if I want that 'A' on that test I have to stay up late and I have to study," Michael said.
The senior knows where he’s going after graduation. Michael earned a full Posse scholarship to Syracuse University, and that achievement is a symbol of how far he’s come, and how much adversity he’s overcome.
"I went through physical, emotional, and sexual abuse but throughout the years, education was my main drive," Michael said. "My sexuality was a huge thing, I questioned a lot, am I gay because of what I went through or what I’ve experienced, and it really took a toll on me."
Michael credits his teachers with bringing him out of his shell.
"Michael was always positive, he was always optimistic, and he always tried to find a solution to his problems instead of just dwelling on the issues," said Griselis Reyes-Gil, who taught Michael in the AP Capstone program. "I think that sort of emotional maturity in someone his age is extremely rare."
Michael says he blossomed into a leader in high school, found the courage to accept himself and come out as gay to his friends, and now they say he’s an inspiration.
"You know it helps me realize that there’s a lot more stuff that people are going through, it inspired me to actually try to do better in the classes that I was in," said classmate Dashawn Howard.
Another close friend, fellow senior Maidelys Gonzalez, said, "He has inspired me that today is just a moment and I have to make the best of it to have a better tomorrow, and he’s a perfect example of that type of person."
Despite all the adversity he’s been through, or maybe because he’s seen so much hardship, Michael is the kid his friends turn to for support.
"He’s always got your back no matter what you’re going through, no matter what," said classmate Daniela Ceballos.
Michael’s goal now is to be a positive example for kids who feel they’ve been betrayed by their own families. In other words, kids like himself.
"Know that there are a lot of people who are in your shoes, going through the same thing, and know that you can do something about it, and that you’re worthy," Michael said.
It's tempting to say Michael has already proven his worth, but he’ll tell you he’s just getting starting.