Stepping off a plane at Boston Logan Airport, moments after returning home from a trip, Orlando Fontanez’s phone began to buzz with text and voicemail notifications. One was from the mother of his then three-year-old daughter Najla. The other was from the Department of Children and Families.
Both conveyed the same nerve-racking news — Najla had been removed from her mother’s custody and taken into foster care overnight.
Later, Fontanez would describe the sheer panic he felt in that moment, the fear coursing through him, as he frantically searched for a solution that would unite him with his only child — a solution that would ultimately bring him to Catholic Charities Boston.
At the time, Fontanez was living in a single bedroom unit in Framingham, which maintained a strict one occupant per room policy. Recently unemployed and struggling with depression, Fontanez said it was all he could afford. Even if the building had allowed for an additional person, Fontanez said the living conditions were unsafe for a child. In order to obtain guardianship and fight for custody of Najla, he needed to find housing — fast.
“I was completely lost,” he said. “I had many nights where I couldn’t sleep.”
Unsure where to turn, Fontanez said he picked up the phone and dialed his former foster parents, who had raised him in Boston through kindergarten and first grade. They immediately agreed to let him stay until he had Najla back and could figure out his next step.
Within a week, the Department of Children and Families granted Fontanez permission to take Najla. Looking back, Fontanez believes this was a defining moment in his life.
“Something just clicked in me,” he said. “Suddenly, I had someone looking up to me, depending on me to take care of her and make sure that all her needs are met. I knew I needed to step up.”
For Fontanez, family has always been complicated. After spending his early childhood with his biological mother and then briefly with his foster parents, Fontanez was adopted by his aunt at age 10 and spent the next fourteen years of his life in Puerto Rico.
It was during this time, spending many days isolated in his bedroom, that Fontanez said he gradually developed the notion that he was unwanted.
There were some dark times where I felt alone in the world, I felt worthless, like a burden.
Only later, after years of reflection and therapy, did he realize that was not the case.
Just before gaining custody of Najla, Fontanez visited Puerto Rico to address these issues with his aunt, which he said have troubled him through his adult life.
“That conversation wasn’t easy, but it was necessary for me to heal,” he said. “It’s amazing how a little bit of communication can change everything. There’s love between us now. Growing up, I didn’t have that, but now I do, and that’s what’s important. Now, we both can go forward.”
Today, after a three-month trial period and several months of working with the Department of Transitional Assistance, Fontanez has full custody of Najla and is living with her at Catholic Charities St. Ambrose Family Shelter.
Fontanez’s biological mother, who he has since reconnected with, says he has in fact been to the shelter before, when visiting her and his sister as a young child. Though he has no memories of this, Fontanez said the staff there have a warm, deeply familiar presence.
“They really treat you like family there,” he said. “I feel like I’m like I’m somebody’s son or brother.”
This sense of support can be felt in the staff’s small, everyday gestures. When Fontanez moved in, Richard Freitas, Director of St. Ambrose Family Shelter, went shopping for him, bringing Fontanez new shoes and professional attire to wear during school and job interviews.
Now a student in an online computer coding course through Per Scolas Boston, Fontanez spends much of his time studying or catching up on other tasks. St. Ambrose’s staff often offer to watch over Najla while he does so, accompanying her to the shelter’s play space or letting her explore the shelter’s vibrant communal garden.
Beyond this, Fontanez said he is grateful to the shelter’s housing manager, who led him through the process of seeking permanent housing. At the moment, Fontanez is on a waitlist to find out if he will receive an apartment.
“Above all, the most we’ve done for him is given him positive reinforcement,” said Freitas. “He is pretty self-motivated, but to let someone know you believe in them, that’s really the best thing you can do for a person.”
Fontanez said he hopes the computer coding course, which runs five days a week for four months, will propel him onto a career path in game development, a goal he has been pondering since he was a child. Growing up, Fontanez says video games provided him with a temporary escape from the challenges of reality and the difficult emotions he was often carrying.
“Puerto Rico is lovely, but on the inside, it can be a whole different world where crime is right next to you,” he said. “There were a lot of nights where there were shootouts right outside our door, and from time to time, it would get bad. I feel like video games kept me from other paths I could have gone down.”
These days, Fontanez is regimented about limiting the amount of time he spends playing video games. He does not want to escape reality anymore; Najla is now his reality, one he is grateful to wake up to every morning.
With Fontanez’s new goals come newfound challenges — he balances multiple hours of homework every night with caring for his daughter and seeking permanent housing. This time, though, he knows his worth and his potential; he finds it in his role as a father, as a mentor, as a protector.
“I’m really determined to learn and to complete this program,” he said. “Whenever I feel my motivation slipping, I always think about my daughter.”
Fontanez says he is learning from Najla as much as she is learning from him. Above all, he cherishes her constant curiosity and her innate sense of wonder.
“She is always asking me, ‘what is this?’ and ‘why is that?’” he said. “The things that adults are bored of or think we already know — she is still fascinated by.”
For Najla, the world remains undefined and is therefore drenched in possibility — every day is a fresh canvas. Every moment is different from the last. Every person is a potential friend.
“I need to view life as she views life, beginning today,” said Fontanez.
And so, they go forward together, side by side as father and daughter, each moment an invitation to grow, each morning a chance to begin again.