Silvio Zabala's second-best gift ever arrived on Christmas morning in 2003, when the then-12-year-old homeless kid from the Bronx found new winter boots under the tree on a Minnesota farm.
"I can keep them?" he asked, stunned.
The best gift arrives Sunday: a diploma from Marshall School, a college prep school in Duluth, where Zabala will graduate before heading to St. John's University on a scholarship. He dreams of becoming a doctor.
To say that Zabala, 18, is the first person in his family to graduate from high school doesn't begin to tell this story. "Oh, my gosh," he says over and over. "Oh, my gosh."
When he was 9, his mother, Leonidas Santana, packed up Zabala and his two brothers and moved from Puerto Rico to New York City to end an abusive relationship and create a better life for her sons. Reality hit fast. They knew no one, had nowhere to stay and ended up in a cockroach-infested homeless shelter for two years.
"It was the most terrible event I've ever experienced," Zabala said. "It's hard to talk about."
A Bronx social worker heard of the boys' plight and contacted longtime friend, Dan Celentano, who lives on a 200-acre ranch in Sturgeon Lake, Minn. For nearly 30 years, New York native Celentano has worked with teens (www.choicesforteens. com) and run the Ranch (www.theranchny.com), a mentoring program for fath-erless boys. In addition, Celentano flies homeless boys from the Bronx to Minnesota in the winter and summer for five days of fresh air, fun and freedom to act like kids.
Zabala and his younger brother, Melvin, arrived at Celentano's farm on Christmas Eve seven years ago.
"They were just such humble kids," Celentano said. "We hung up a couple of stockings and put some candy in them. They thought that was the greatest thing in the world."
They milked cows and went rock climbing, horseback riding and sledding on snow that "looked like diamonds on the ground," Zabala said.
The boys returned in the summer and again in the winter for several years.
During his sophomore year, the brainy Zabala was outpacing his New York classmates. His mother, working as a janitor, knew it, but she could not afford private-school tuition. Celentano knew it, too.
"I told Silvio, 'If you work hard in school, I'll see if I can get you a scholarship to Marshall,'" Celentano said. Zabala won a two-year scholarship and lived with host families during his junior and senior years.
He made friends, played rugby and football, earned A's and B's and held down a service job at the local steakhouse, refusing a management promotion because he didn't feel right telling his peers what to do.
"Minnesota Nice fits me," Zabala said. "In New York, they're all in your face."
Marshall Athletic Director Dave Homstad is among Zabala's fans. "It had to be incredible culture shock, coming from the south Bronx to our tiny private school in Duluth," Homstad said. "But he had such a pleasant personality and the kids accepted him immediately."
Homstad, also a St. John's alumnus, remembers Zabala coming at him in the hallway, decked out in his St. John's sweatshirt. "Look at this!" he shouted.
"Yep," Homstad said with a laugh. "You go show that to your classmates going to [archrival] St. Thomas."
Marshall, Homstad said, "has been fortunate to have him as a student and he's been fortunate to have this school in which to grow. It was a perfect match."
Zabala credits his mother for sacrificing. "At first, she was hesitant to let me go like that, but she realized it was my future," he said, "and her future, too."
Santana, who has since moved out of the shelter and into an apartment, arrives in Minnesota with Melvin, a high school junior, on Saturday to join the festivities.
"I cannot wait to see her," Zabala said. "We are real- ly tight."
His host families will attend graduation, as will the generous donors who made Marshall School possible. Celentano will be there, too, of course. "That's my kid," he said.
"I think I'm going to cry, seriously," Zabala said as he pictured accepting his diploma. "I made it. I'm going to college.
"How big is that?"
Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • email@example.com