In an extraordinary story, a volunteer cop from Queens went from life as a homeless person to making it to Harvard University, she is an inspiration for others.
Athena Capo-Battaglia, 18, always wanted to have higher education as she was convinced it would change her life.
The auxiliary NYPD officer said, “I felt I had to get into college because this is not where I want to stay,” she applied to colleges while living in a shelter. “I was like, ‘OK, this is one way that I can get out and maybe in the future get a good job.’ ”
Her mother and she entered the shelter system two years ago as they couldn’t keep up with the house rent after her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and her grandmother died.
“It was kind of hard for us to get into the groove of things,” she said. “We just didn’t have enough money to afford an apartment after a few years.”
“It happens to a lot more people than you think,” said Capo-Battaglia. “All kinds of people end up there for all kinds of reasons. It’s not just because people are lazy.”
There are 63,839 homeless people and 15,492 homeless families living in New York City shelters, says the Coalition for the Homeless.
She was living in a shelter in Jamaica, Queens, and then joined the auxiliary police, which helps the NYPD keep the public safe. She volunteered with the 103rd Precinct.
Capo-Battaglia says, “I thought it would be a great opportunity to get to know people and experience the outside world more, really understand what the police do,” she said. “A big part of the auxiliary police is building connections between the community and the police, so I thought I’d really like to be a part of that.”
As she was attending high school in Manhattan and applying for colleges, Capo-Battaglia trained twice a week, learning NYPD protocols and procedures and self-defense. She says, “I felt like I was doing something good,” she said. “It’s a lot about maintaining public safety.”
Finally, in last March, she was accepted into Harvard University. “I called my friend, and I just screamed, ‘Oh my God, I got into Harvard!’ ” she recalled. “It was really exciting. I wanted to see if I could get in. I’m used to challenging myself. That’s what I had to do my whole life.” She said, “[Her mother] was super-excited, as well,” she said. “She was super-proud.”
Her accomplishments did not end there, she graduated from the auxiliary police last April and was class valedictorian. She also received from the mayor’s office a $1,000 scholarship and she and dozens of other college-bound high school students received an award.
“I felt like I accomplished something,” she said. “It’s always nice to be rewarded.” She wants to enter the field of neuroscience, currently she lives on Harvard’s Cambridge, Mass., campus, has a job at a local cafe and attends classes full time.
“It’s a lot, but there are so many opportunities, especially at Harvard,” she said.
During her school break, she jets back to New York, where she lives with her mother at the shelter, and volunteers with the 103rd Precinct and says she might even consider joining the NYPD. “It depends on what jobs I decide will suit me the best. I definitely plan to continue in auxiliary. My experiences here have been really great,” she said.
She finally adds, “I never really feel like the struggle is over,” said Capo-Battaglia. “It’s definitely rewarding to give back.”