Antoine Joseph (AJ) is a paraeducator, youth counselor and basketball coach at MPA’s Plymouth campus. His journey to MPA has all the twists and turns of a major motion picture, complete with happy ending, we like to think, because he ended up with us!
He was born in Saint-Marc, Haiti, a small village outside of Port-Au-Prince, and raised by a single mother who worked as a housekeeper to support herself, AJ and his little sister. “You would expect me to say life was hard,” he explains when asked about his childhood. “My father walked out on us when I was very small. We had very little but I never felt worry, sadness or helplessness. That’s because my mother worked hard to get us an education and raised us to believe we could achieve great things if we put the work in and always tried to be the best at whatever we did.”
And soccer was what AJ was best at. From an early age he was running circles around players on opposing teams; winning games and championships. At the age of 15 he earned a spot on the National Team for Haiti. It was there a scout took notice of his skills and recruited him for the French Guiana Football League. His dream of becoming a professional soccer player was one step closer to being realized. Fame and, hopefully, fortune would surely follow. Only one obstacle now stood in his way. As he was still, technically, a minor, he would need permission from his mother.
“My mother was less than enthusiastic,” AJ explains. “Here was the chance of a lifetime. A team that would allow me to travel all over the world doing what I loved most, all expenses paid. And she was skeptical. ‘Who are these people’ she said. ‘I’ve never met them and this contract does not fully explain to me what you are signing up for.’ I was angry with her and couldn’t understand why she was questioning anything about this golden opportunity.”
AJ reluctantly called the scout and explained he would need to speak directly with his mother before any contract was signed.
“He scoffed at me and reminded me how many kids would jump at the opportunity to take my place. My mother held firm and with that, the offer was rescinded. My soccer career was over.”
While AJ remained heartbroken, his body was going through dramatic changes. A growth spurt put him head and shoulders above his peers, leading him to try his hand in a new sport: Basketball. By age 22 he was 6’ 9’’ and dominant on the courts, drawing on his footwork skills and the competitive edge that came naturally from years of playing soccer.
“I was at a level where I was drawing interest from colleges in the United States. Partial scholarships were offered, which was like no offer at all to me. I couldn’t even afford basketball shoes.”
With all the attention he was receiving, AJ, and even his mother became determined to use his new sport to get him out of Haiti. There were opportunities overseas far greater than what his village or anywhere else in his country could offer. And to make matters even more pressing, political instability and a rise in gang violence was making Haiti a dangerous place to live.
“I spent every day visiting my church and praying,” he explains. “My mother’s work ethic is ingrained in me. I was using everything at my disposal, physically and spiritually, to get myself out of Haiti. I’m proud to say, God answered my prayers.”
At age 22 AJ was offered a full basketball scholarship at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee where he thrived as an athlete and student, despite not knowing not one word of English. Within 6 months he was fluent and a star basketball player. He went on to play professionally in Argentina, while also finding time on the side to coach and mentor kids. As someone whose journey had not been an easy one, this came naturally to him.
He eventually returned to Haiti and became captain of the Haitian National Basketball Team, where he witnessed, first-hand the unrest in his home country. He was convinced, once again, that he needed to leave and got to work using his extensive overseas contacts for a way out.
His agent put him in touch with Moses Jean-Pierre, former basketball star of Plymouth State University.
“We hit it off right away. We both played at a high level and he is the son of Haitian immigrants so we have a lot in common. He also knew about my passion for mentoring kids so immediately told me about MPA. It seemed like a perfect match for me, particularly after I spoke with Jim Carey, Director of Recruiting at MPA.”
“He’s an extremely likable guy,” says Jay Marshall, Head of School. “And what he’s done for the kids in this school is invaluable. MPA is a community built on helping the most at-risk, overlooked, forgotten kids. It’s just not in our nature to give up on anyone.
“Everything happens for a reason,” says AJ. “It was my faith in God and the relentless love, guidance and hard work of my mother that brought me to where I am today. I was recently offered a contract to play basketball professionally in Spain, but turned it down. I feel I belong here and owe it to this place and the community that adopted me to fulfill my passion for helping kids. It’s bigger than money. It’s about making an impact. And I feel like I’m just getting started .