Life’s darkest moments and tragedies have an odd way of bringing people together.
It takes the right people. It takes the right time.
Castera William Charles Mastropaolo is a constant reminder of this; a symbol of hope in a world of constant unknowns and trying times. Born in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, “Cas” has experienced more than the average 13-year-old, if that’s how old he really is.
Cas was just three years old when he was taken to an auction block outside of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, and priced at $60. But he escaped poverty, starvation, slavery and homelessness — traits defining his homeland — when a U.S. missionary bought him at the slave auction. Afterwards, the missionary took Cas to a Haitian orphanage.
Two other humanitarians, Laura and Ken Mastropaolo also helped Cas escape.
The Berlin Heights pair adopted him four years later, in 2003. Before bringing him home in 2005, the pair had to endure two years of insufferable periods of waiting, which included filling out tedious paperwork, before they could bring their new son home.
He is the exception to the rule, as most Haitian children living in orphanages grow up to find themselves living a life of oppression.
Cas has lived in Erie County for seven and a half years now.
When the Register last met with the Mastropaolos family in 2007, Cas didn’t speak English. He was still adapting to his new family and seemed to have a long and complicated road ahead of him.
Six years later, he still faces challenges — albeit they draw more parallels to the average American teenager.
Cas is relatively fluent in English, though he still struggles at times because of his thick accent and hearing impairment. He has a large group of friends, can’t wait to enter high school and is excelling on the local sports scene.
“I describe Cas as the adventure of a lifetime,” Laura said. “There are always obstacles for anyone, and there is always going to be something that will come up. But we’ve made it this far, and you can’t stop us now.”
ADJUSTING ON THE FLY
Cas sways back and forth in his bar stool at the kitchen table, smiling as he recalls a nationwide football camp he recently returned from.
He’s nothing like the boy Laura and Ken brought home seven years ago, yet every bit the same.
“When we first came home, we had to teach him how to flush toilets and how to play, because he didn’t know how to play,” Laura said. “It’s just this gradual mountain, and we still are climbing it. We are just so lucky he is so positive, and he works so hard.”
His constant smile and positive outlook on life haven’t faltered, despite the constant uphill battle that is establishing a new life in a new country.
When he arrived Dec. 29, 2005, Cas was estimated to be six years old and weighed about 40 pounds because of a protein deficit-diet consisting of mostly rice and pasta.
His life before the orphanage left him without some significant specifics. Through dentition, doctors have estimated that Cas was born around 1999, but he’ll never actually know his true birth date. He celebrates his birthday every year on Dec. 15.
He came to the U.S with latent tuberculosis, an infectious disease that usually attacks the lungs. He endured learning a new language while dealing with his hearing impairment. All of this, of course, on top of adapting to a new world.
“When you see these adoption stories on TV, the kids comes home and everybody lives happily ever after,” Laura said. “I mean, there are definitely struggles and mountains along the way. A number of the challenges I had I couldn’t ask my next door neighbor.”
Cas remembers very little about Haiti.
He recalls his older brother Emanuel visiting him in the orphanage and playing with his best friend Landy, who was adopted a month before Cas and currently lives near Portland, Oregon. He remembers eating coconuts. He’s haunted by memories of waking up with mice in his bed.
“Every morning I woke up and there was one in my bed. I never screamed though,” said Cas, with a smile. “When somebody asks me about my country, I just say I was born there and I lived in the orphanage.”
Recalling very little is something Laura sees as a positive.
Cas’ mother died either at his birth or shortly thereafter. His father was never in the picture. His older brother Emanuel raised him on the streets during the first few years, merely surviving by whatever they could get their hands on.
He has three biological sisters — Alexandra, Geralda and Juanna — whom he knows very little about, though he vaguely recalls meeting Alexandra.
“We are focusing more on the positives in his life,” Laura said. “We have had really good therapists, and sometimes it’s best to leave things buried.”
Today, Cas is your typical American teenager. He’ll start seventh grade this fall at Edison Middle School.
His favorite class is gym, he loves nachos, and wants to be the first pro athlete to play in both the NFL and NBA. He’s as die-hard a Michigan fan as his mom and dad, claiming his favorite U.S. city is Ann Arbor, and can’t wait to play high school sports.
“There are times when we have to take a step back and say, ‘Wow, we have made a lot of progress,’” Ken Mastropaolo said. “We are so deep in it.”
His life before America is murky, but Cas won’t ever forget his first night in the states.
“I peed in a bush,” Cas said with a mischievous smile.
“We picked him up in Miami, and we had to spend the night to get a flight back, and we just had a little hotel,” Laura recalled. “We brought him back and gave him his first meal of pizza. We just sat by the pool at a table to eat and there were planters around.
“All of a sudden we just like turned around and Cas is peeing in a flower planter. It just kind of hit us like ‘Oh my gosh, he doesn’t know about toilets.’”
At the time, Ken and Laura felt overwhelmed. They already had two daughters, and raising a Haitian boy was foreign territory.
Today, it’s a memory connected to one of the best days of their lives.
“I’ve learned to be a better person. It just felt like life got better,” Cas said. “They made my life a whole lot better and made sure I kept working hard in everything I do.”
A FOOTBALL LIFE
Spending the first six years of his life in a country where temperatures routinely surpass 90 degrees certainly played a part in Cas’ interests today.
Cas can’t get enough of the outdoors and loves all sports. He used to play soccer and baseball, but gave them up for faster-paced sports such as football and basketball. He works out several times a week and attends as many summer football camps as he can.
In addition to football and basketball, Cas is looking forward to trying out for the track and field team this school year.
He recently returned from a week-long football developmental camp at Fawcett Stadium in Canton, hosted by USA Football.
“I wanted to look up USA football and so I told my mom and asked her if there was such a thing as USA football. She looked it up and there was,” Cas said.
The Mastropaolos’ signed their son up for the Midwest tryout in Chicago, not really knowing if he had a chance of making the team.
The organization hosted tryouts all over the country and narrowed it down to the top athletes in each age division. Cas was selected to the under-14 national team, which boasted a roster of 175 kids from 29 states.
“I expected to work hard and meet new people,” Cas said.
When he first started football two years ago, Cas weighed around 120 pounds and played running back for his fifth-grade team.
He blasted through the weight limit the next year, bulking up to around 140, forcing him to move to linebacker.
“They have weight limits early on,” Ken said. “He shot through the weight limit last year.”
Cas is pretty versatile right now, playing a number of positions in different summer camps.
“He gets very upset when you have to pull him out of a football game. He wants to be on both sides of the ball,” Ken said.
Cas is unable to wear his hearing aids while competing, which is an obstacle in itself.
“Sometimes I have a little trouble (understanding),” he said.
It’s a small hurdle when he thinks about the big picture.
“When I grow up, I want to be an NFL and NBA player,” he said. “When I retire I wanna be like an owner or a trainer, and teach kids how to be better athletes and lift weights. Or I might just go to a company where I can help kids out. But I know I have to go to school and do my job like I am suppose to go to.”
The camp ended with two football games at the Football Hall of Fame Field at Fawcett Stadium. The camp was divided into four teams: Red, White, Blue and Silver.
On the final day of camp, Cas and the Red team beat the Silver team, 54-21. Cas had three tackles for loss.
“We crushed them,” Cas said, grinning ear-to-ear.