When a Vietnam veteran from Riverdale passed away last month, high school senior Samuel Rojas folded his flag. He placed it on the veteran’s casket and wrapped a rosary around the man’s wrist. The veteran, he said, was a devout Catholic.
Funeral home director Andrew Williams was surprised Samuel was familiar with the formal flag-folding ritual.
“I learned how to fold a flag in Boy Scouts when I was 13,” Samuel said. “Never forgot how to do it.”
Mr. Williams, who operates Williams Funeral Home on Broadway, invited Samuel to attend the man’s ceremony, but the student declined.
“It must have been nice to watch, but that’s not my place,” he said.
Samuel is an intern at Mr. Williams’ funeral home, along with fellow John F. Kennedy High School senior Marylyn Cruz. The school’s internship program, which works in conjunction with East Side House Settlement in the south Bronx, places students in paid after-school internships. The funeral home’s interns work there Monday through Friday for two hours after school.
While their internship is hardly typical, Samuel and Marylyn sought out the positions, and have found a place of unexpected solace and inspiration in the funeral home. The students are not allowed in the morgue area, but they are kept busy. Samuel does maintenance work while Marylyn assists with administrative duties, including making prayer cards, and both students often console family members of the deceased.
“It sounds strange to most people, but it takes a certain kind of someone to deal with someone’s loved one with the same care that they would deal with them for themselves,” Samuel said. “I kind of fell in love with it.”
Far from funereal
The two students are far from funereal. As they sit at a long table in one of the home’s rooms, a wall lined with urns behind them, they exude positivity and joke together. Samuel was an active member of Kennedy’s football team this past fall; Marylyn plans to run for prom queen at Kennedy and says her friends call her “smiley” because of her positive attitude.
But both say their experiences dealing with the death of loved ones fueled their interest in the field.
In March of 2012, they lost a friend and classmate when Kennedy student Alexander “A.J.” Walters was stabbed during a dispute on his way home from school. He died on March 14, after being taken off life support. He was the second student that school year to succumb to violence — 17-year-old Kurt Lawrence had been killed the previous November. Like Samuel, A.J. and Kurt were on Kennedy’s football team.
“I still remember that day vividly,” said Samuel, who was a close friend of A.J.’s. “I play it over all the time in my mind.”
Marylyn said a friend at another school recently committed suicide. Her uncle passed away from cancer last spring, and her grandfather in Puerto Rico died on Thanksgiving.
Both students come from what they describe as rough neighborhoods and have had more than their share of personal difficulties. “If it wasn’t for East Side House, I think I’d be done,” said Samuel. But the students say their experiences have helped them grow.
“After going through those hard times, it has made me stronger,” said Marylyn, who plans to attend American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service in Manhattan next year.
Samuel said the internship, along with football, has kept him in a productive environment and out of trouble after school, something he says he used to have a hard time with. He used his Christmas money to buy a suit to wear for his funeral home interview.
While he is considering mortuary science, he has a wide range of interests and is also looking into being a technician or going into nursing or computer science. He plans to go to Nashua Community College and then Rutgers in the fall.
Emma Peña, the program director at East Side House Settlement who brought the internship program to Kennedy this year, said the program is meant to improve students’ attendance. Students who do not attend school are not allowed to attend their internship, which means they do not receive their stipend – a total of $1,000 per student over the course of the semester.
“For a lot of kids, it works very well, because they come from homes where they are struggling,” said Ms. Peña.
Since the program started, she has seen significant improvements in attendance for the 19 students involved. Along with Williams Funeral Home — which was added to the list of internship locales after Marylyn expressed interest, students intern at Melrose Senior Center, the Methodist Home for Nursing and Rehabilitation (MHNR), Tremont Paint Supply, and East Side House’s after school program. Kennedy student Evan Smith, who does housekeeping at the Methodist home, said being able to say he’s going to work after school is a good feeling.
“A lot of us come from rough neighborhoods, so it gives us something to do,” said Dayquan Elliott, who works in recreation at MHNR. He plays bingo with the residents and spends time talking with them after school.
“If you ever lost your grandma or something like that, it kind of fills the void because some of them have a ‘grandma’ feel,” said Dayquan. “Some of them have Alzheimers and dementia, but it’s still nice to have them around.”
Other interns, like Shamecca, are gaining career skills through their internships. An aspiring physical therapist, Shamecca said she has learned how to check heart rates and blood pressure at MHNR.
“They put me in the right place,” she said.
Samuel said that the internship program is the “best thing to happen” at Kennedy. He wishes the school, which will close at the end of the year, had implemented it years ago.
“You experience something different, something odd,” Samuel said of his particular internship. “If you don’t expose yourself to nothing new you don’t know what you want to be. It was a shock, too, because when I went I didn’t think I was going to be okay with it. But I went, I applied myself, and I found joy in it,” he said.
Keeping a promise
For Marylyn, the internship allows her to keep a promise to her deceased grandfather.
At his funeral in the fall, Marylyn said she placed a white rose on his casket, vowing to be a good person, and to open her own funeral home. As she and Samuel admired the paintings hanging on the walls of the funeral home’s lobby on Friday evening, she said she hoped to hang paintings in her future funeral home as well.
Marylyn said one painting in particular always struck her when she entered the lobby. It is a Thomas Kinkade painting called “Walk of Faith.” In the painting, Jesus and his apostle Peter walk through a garden together, on a path next to a pond. But when Marylyn described the painting, she said she thought the image was of Jesus and Judas, walking together in heaven.
“When I see it, it makes me think that heaven is a beautiful place,” Marylyn said.