Sixteen-year-old My Nguyen rocked against a giant gravestone, terrified by the night.
He was disrespecting the dead, he feared, sitting here on his blanket laid over the Elmwood Cemetery’s cold February ground.
Suddenly homeless and desperate for rest, maybe here where no one else would dare come after dark he could safely close his eyes — if the dead would forgive him.
“I apologize,” he whispered over and over. “I apologize. I apologize”
On that winter night in early 2011, the road from oblivion toward self-actualization bent into a suffocating darkness.
He was no longer the youth who had tried to brawl his way through middle school and hide the inner self that was gay.
But he was not yet the champion for human rights who would win national honors for his service to immigrant families and homeless teens.
He had left his home, then been run out of a friend’s house.
“I didn’t think I could get out of this mess,” said Nguyen (pronounced “win”), now 17.
He stood in the twilight of a recent November evening, returning to the cemetery in soft gray light like the morning after that February night. He returned to the 100-year-old headstones and the dry grass under the shield of a giant oak. His eyes reddened.
“That night was the loneliest I’ve ever been.”
In all, he would spend three months homeless. Two nights he found shelter in a city park, but grew fearful of other people in the dark. He spent two nights hiding in the cemetery. The rest he spent on friends’ homes’ couches or extra beds until he was placed in a home under a guardianship.
It’s not easy for him to tell his story.
Even as he began leading other students in humanitarian causes with groups like the 20/20 Leadership youth coalition, adults who knew parts of his story wouldn’t have expected him to tell it.
“Nobody judges one another more than teens,” said Marilyn Alstrom, executive director of 20/20. “It’s a special person — the teen who doesn’t care about blending in, who wants to give back.”
Earlier this year, Nguyen learned he had earned a $1,000 grant from Youth Service America to raise awareness about homeless youth by mobilizing teens into flash mob dance events in April 2013. The organization named him Missouri’s youth ambassador, and he went to Washington, D.C., for training to help him lead his cause.
Along the way he’s also been volunteering to help with services to immigrant families and to promote passage of the DREAM Act, which would provide college opportunities for children raised in the U.S. who were brought into the country illegally by their parents.
He didn’t have to make it personal. But Nguyen was no longer “the quiet kid riding in the back of the bus,” said Alstrom, remembering Nguyen’s first days with 20/20 while attending Kansas City’s Northeast High School.
In April, he stood before 250 people in a conference room at Kansas City’s Federal Reserve Bank to pitch his idea for homeless teens and stunned the room with his story.
Other teenagers in 20/20 — which draws students from several school districts in Kansas and Missouri — have since come forward seeking help out of homelessness.
Nguyen circulates now at the front of human rights groups, reaching out to youths who might be hiding their struggles with homelessness, immigration concerns or identification as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
He knows it’s too easy to just disappear.
He is a Vietnamese American, who immigrated here with his family in the first grade. He began to be aware that he might be gay in middle school and turned to fighting, acting like he was in a gang.
He even got “jumped in,” meeting in the woods with other youths to be beaten up in the ritual of gang membership.
Fights got him expelled in the sixth grade. He spent the rest of middle school soulless. Sullen. With no expectations, no life goals.
“I decided I didn’t need friends anymore,” he said. “If you die, you were meant to. So what?”
His life began to change when a friend talked him into joining the Junior ROTC program at Northeast. People in JROTC recommended him for a leadership program that led to Nguyen spending a week at the Youth Leadership Institute summer camp at Rockhurst University his first summer in high school.
Emporia State University student Ricardo Quinone, 22, was a counselor at the camp, and he remembers when Nguyen unleashed his inner crusader.
Teens in groups had bared their descriptions of gay stereotypes in pictures and words on large sheets of paper.
Nguyen tore up the pictures.
“He said, ‘I’m not going to let this define me,’ ” Quinone said. “He said, ‘I’m not going to let you hold me back!’ ”
He couldn’t sit back quietly anymore, Nguyen said. That doesn’t change the world. “Silence,” he said, repeating a message of the camp, “equals contempt.”
“It was time to be who I am,” he said.
Quinone has had more opportunities to work with Nguyen on immigration issues, so he has witnessed what came out of Nguyen’s transformation.
Here was a teenager “who deeply believes in justice for all,” Quinone said. “He expresses so much hurt. Through one lens he was seeing what is going on, and through the other lens he was seeing a way to fight it.”
Nguyen calls himself lucky.
He wiped at tears, standing back amid the tombstones this past week.
Unlike so many teens who fall into homelessness, he’s healthy. He’s alive. And his work goes on.
When local volunteers went into a Hispanic neighborhood this fall to help people secure new protections from deportation for immigrants who came as children, Nguyen joined them, Quinone said.
Nguyen was the only member of the team who didn’t know Spanish, but that didn’t stop him.
Within the first few hours, Nguyen had memorized the essential Spanish lines he needed to do the job.
“My’s one of those people who really likes doing the work,” Quinone said. “And it was really good Spanish.”