Building Wealth and Owning Something—on Your Terms
I came to America with nothing. And when you have nothing, an awful lot of people who mean well make assumptions, virtually all of them wrong, about what you need and want, Still, by the time I graduated from college, I knew how important it was to build a foundation for my family and me. In college, I was grinding to be successful so I could make the most of my future. When I graduated from college and got a job, I realized my future had arrived. I had to shift my primary focus from accumulating knowledge to achieving security for my family. I never overextended myself. My wife and I lived in a small apartment while I was finishing graduate school. We decided to continue to live there after I graduated to save money and work toward something of our own. I also felt like I had something to prove to myself. An opportunity to own a house fell through in the fall of my senior year in College, and that made me hungrier to buy a place to prove to myself that I could do it.
When I was growing up, my family and I never waited for people to hand us things. We never felt we were victims. We worked hard and accepted the reality of our limitations without letting them stop us from striving for more. My mother instilled in us this value: “A chicken does not eat more than it can swallow.” I held on to this value. We were always realistic with the plans we put in place in order to reach the next milestone. We admitted when we needed help or did not know certain things. My mother taught me to be resourceful, to always be open to learn and to find people I could learn from. We were fortunate to have people in our lives who advocated for us and helped connect the missing pieces.
One of these people was a man named Michael, who wanted to practice his French and help new immigrants who were resettling in NH. When he found out that we had recently emigrated to Manchester from the Congo—where the primary language happens to be French—he felt compelled to meet us. We hit it off right away and Michael has remained a close family friend. But we certainly had no clue when we first met that he would have such a big impact on our lives.
In 2007, Michael thought it would be a good idea to put together a small documentary about my family and send it to the TV show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” on ABC. We did not think much of it, but we made the video anyway and sent it out. We told our story and showcased our dance skills. We didn’t hear anything back until the spring of 2010. A producer of the show contacted us and told us she loved our story and that we were a potential finalist. We were surprised to hear from them. They sent another producer and a camera crew to create a finalist video. We were more excited about telling our story than we were about getting a home, because we realized that our story would give a voice to thousands, perhaps millions, of people who didn’t have one. The producer came to our home and filmed us as a family at home as well as doing our dancing and different things in our community. From spring through the summer, they contacted us frequently to inform us that we were still in the running..
Our situation was different than those of other selected families. As a matter of fact, there were two families in NH who had been selected in the past. Most people had their own homes, which were then remodeled. We did not have a home of our own, but they were still interested in us. They also reached out to the City of Manchester and the alderman in our area. The city initially said yes to donating land for building a home. All of these discussions were happening without our knowledge. At times, the directors of the show spoke to two of our friends whom we had designated to arrange logistics in the event we were selected. Things were looking good. And by early fall my family was chosen to receive a new home. But they didn’t tell us right away because there were some complications that arose with the city. Apparently an alderman changed his mind and decided to vote against donating the land after all. And that was that. The show could not move forward. I am not sure exactly what occurred that changed the alderman's point of view but I do know that some leaders in Manchester and New Hampshire were unsympathetic to refugees. In fact, the mayor had asked for a moratorium on refugee resettlement in the city. Since the premise of our episode on the show was to highlight our story of escaping war and finding a voice in the state, as well as to honor our mother for all her hard work, I can only speculate that this played a role in reneging on the land deal. This wasn’t the end of my relationship with ABC.
In October of 2010, I was in my college dorm room preparing for a quiz when I received a phone call from a producer of the TV show “Dancing with The Stars.” The call caught me completely off guard.
“We got your story from the producers of ‘Extreme Makeover: Home Edition’ and we want to feature you in our show,” the producer said. “ Would you be interested in performing with your brothers to honor your mother?”
I was shocked. “I’ll have to talk to my family first,” I said. “I’ll get back to you.”
“Do what you got to do,” he said. “But keep it under your hat that the idea is to honor your mom.” His tone was conspiratorial.
“Got it,” I said.
An appearance on “Dancing with The Stars.” I couldn’t believe it. I called my brothers and mother and told them the good news, that the show wanted to do a segment on us. My brothers were excited. My mother sounded less enthusiastic but said she was fine about. I don’t think she knew how big a deal this was. This was national television on a top rated show.
I called the producer back told him we were all in. He told me they also wanted us to perform, but not to tell my mother about that either so it would be a surprise for her. He said he would send a producer and film crew that weekend to shoot the segment, and the following week we would fly out to LA to be on the live show. He also mentioned that Kym Johnson, one of the professional dancers, was going to fly out to Manchester to work with us to co-choreograph the segment. I was excited and shocked that all of this was happening.
Even though we lost the opportunity for a new home, another door opened. That's one of the funny and wonderful things I’ve discovered about perseverance. When you bust your butt to succeed in one area, you create this kind of magnetic field around you that draws to you all these other opportunities that you never imagined. Like this “Dancing with Stars” gig. We didn’t know the gig itself would ever happen. Then when it did, we didn’t know all of this stuff was happening on the back end. But it all started to make sense when I framed my perseverance as the connection between everything. And now my family was going to have the chance to tell our story to millions of people.
So Kym Johnson and I co-choreographed the segment dance and we rehearsed in Manchester with my brothers without my mother knowing. The following week we flew out to LA for the show. We detoured for an awesome time in Disneyland first. Then we rehearsed on stage and met all the contestants for that season, including Rick Fox, Brandy, Kurt Warner, Jennifer Grey and Kyle Massey. We even got a chance to meet John Legend and Jason Derulo who performed that week, too,. Surprising, it did not feel shocking being on the show anymore. In fact, it felt like that was where we belonged. We were not scared to perform. We were pumped to be on the show.
Meanwhile, the news spread back home that we were going to be on the show. Close friends sent Facebook messages wishing us luck, which made us feel more like stars. We sat in the audience with our mother, but just before our segment aired, my brothers and I were sent backstage. Our video story was playing on the big screen while we prepared to perform our dance with the professional dancers. It was a surreal feeling. We were ready to tear the floor up. Then the music started. It was a Cha Cha/Hip Hop fusion. We started to dance.
The professional dancers of the show were the real deal. I remembered some of them from the TV show “So You Think You Can Dance.” We all had solos in the dance and my brother Vinny finished his session with an amazing front flip. We received a standing ovation from the audience. It was a great moment for me and my brothers, but what it really represented was all the hard work my mother put in raising us and keeping us safe.
Later, we met some of the producers of the “Extreme Makeover” show who shared our story with the DWTS producers. They said they were sorry things didn't work out with the city officials in Manchester. I told them I was grateful for the opportunity they offered us to share our story and talents with millions of viewers.
On the flight home, I thought about what happened with the Manchester alderman who blocked my family from getting a home. And I concluded that it didn’t matter. I did not need them to give us land. We never relied on people to hand us stuff and we were not going to start now by begging officials to donate property. From that day on, I knew my quest was to buy a home of my own. I never doubted that it was possible. I just knew I needed to finish school and get a job first.
I did not have a credit card in college, so after graduation I decided to finance a vehicle to build my credit. My mother and my father-in-law co-signed car loans for my wife and I. I made sure I paid everything on time. The next thing I needed was an advisor to help me understand the process of buying a home. I thought it might be smart to buy a multi-family home. I reached out to a gentleman I used to go to church with, Norm, who owned many properties and flipped homes. He was open to teaching me. Six months went by and I had a great credit score, good to qualify to buy a home. I was working two jobs, a full-time job at the National Passport Center and a part-time job at the university as a learning coach. I was determined to succeed.
And I did. When I was just 22, with a loan from my in-laws for a down payment, my wife and I purchased our first home. We were able to pay our in laws the down payment back within a few months. It was a major milestone for me. And I had proven to myself it was obtainable and that I did not need help from the Manchester City officials.
Our home had two units and, within a month, we had tenants in our second floor unit. Their portion of the rent covered a lot of the mortgage. Many people who saw our home did not believe a young black man and his wife owned the place and that I was also the landlord. It was a reality they weren’t used to seeing. Those things do not faze me, because I know that, if I put my mind to something and develop the skills I need and am open to learning, I can reach my goals. People who only see the surface do not know what has shaped me or where I came from.
Perseverance is everything. You have to be able to sacrifice and put in the time to get what you want. While you are in the process of developing and building, you have to know what you need and how that differs from what you want. You do not want to put more in your mouth than what you can swallow.