As neighbors living a world apart, they awoke to the same bursts of gunfire. They heard the same police sirens, the same approaching ambulances.
Charles J. “C.J.” Nessralla IV was a 24-year-old Northeastern graduate bound for medical school. He roomed on one side of Tremont Street — the Northeastern side — in the South End.
Manny “Alex” Peguero was a 15-year-old immigrant growing up without his parents on the other side of Tremont — the more dangerous side — in a crowded apartment in the Lenox Street public housing project.
When Nessralla arrived at Northeastern, his orientation leader stood on the university side of Tremont, gestured toward the housing project, and warned, “Don’t ever cross the street.’’
But Nessralla did, and lives were changed forever.
Six years after their paths first crossed, Manny will wake up Sunday in Nessralla’s childhood home in suburban Avon, an elegant, four-bedroom Colonial on a lushly landscaped lot with a white picket fence and backyard waterfall. There, a Father’s Day breakfast will be cooking, and a boy from the Dominican Republic, whose biological parents long ago vanished from his daily life, will be with the found family that has welcomed him, enjoying a future and a daily routine no longer preoccupied with surviving the city streets.
Manny calls Nessralla’s parents, Beth and Chuck, Mom and Dad. But everyone, and especially Manny, knows that the best parental figure the castoff teen has ever had is that former stranger from the other side of Tremont Street.
“C.J. has become a dad to Manny,’’ said Sarah White, a guidance counselor who worked with Manny at the Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Roxbury. “He has saved him.’’
Nessralla entered Manny’s life through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program and has made putting him on the path to success the major focus of his young life. He has been his mentor, friend, tutor, and advocate; he persuaded his parents two years ago to take him into their home. And then, last winter, he took an extraordinary step and moved to more formally assume a parent’s responsibility. In a rarity of family law, a Suffolk County judge recognized Nessralla’s exceptional commitment by appointing him Manny’s legal guardian.
“Mr. Nessralla, you are only 26 years old, and this is a huge responsibility,’’ witnesses recalled the judge saying. “Are you sure you’re prepared for it?’’
“Yes, your honor, I’m sure,” Nessralla replied.
To be there for Manny, Nessralla moved away from his college buddies and the social rituals of a mid-20s male in a city of vast possibilities. He helped enroll him at Xaverian Brothers High School in Westwood and spearheaded a fund-raising campaign to pay his tuition. He invested countless hours helping him with his studies and in pursuing his promise as a baseball and basketball prodigy.
Manny calls Nessralla his big brother. But how many big brothers would wake him for school and pack his lunch? Or share carpool duties for him? Tutor him past midnight? Attend his parent-teacher meetings?
Big brothers generally don’t buy siblings new cellphones when theirs are stolen. Or new sneakers when theirs are tattered. They don’t walk away from girlfriends who fail to appreciate bonds like theirs — and the time and attention such devotion requires.
‘C.J. has become a dad to Manny. He has saved him.’
Nessralla has done it all, even as he graduated from Northeastern and entered UMass Medical School in Worcester, thus adding a regular three-hour round trip to his commitment to Manny.
“C.J. has given me a better life,’’ Manny said at a big wooden table in the family kitchen. “He has brought me into a family that supports me in every way.’’
At first glance, they appear an odd couple, the suburban white doctor-to-be and the Latino teen from the city, often side by side. They banter easily, as brothers might, Manny given to playful sarcasm, while Nessralla strikes a balance between friend and authority figure.
For Nessralla, giving is growing.
“I went from being a college kid living with my buddies and going out and having fun all the time to completely being responsible for someone else, and it changed my life,” he said. “This has turned me into an adult, which is pretty amazing to me.’’
They met by serendipity, as if they were cast in a Boston sequel of “The Blind Side,’’ the blockbuster about a down-and-out urban Memphis teen who was saved by a suburban family and put on a course to the National Football League.
It was 2008, and Nessralla was rooming with his pals, often playing video games — beer pong, anyone? — while he chipped away at his pre-med coursework.
Manny was the oldest of six children sharing a three-bedroom flat in the project with his father’s ex-girlfriend. He spent much of his time looking out for his sister, Paoly, who is two years younger and still lives there. Manny was 11 at the time.
Nessralla, it seemed, had been born to give. In kindergarten, he took it upon himself to look after a classmate with Down syndrome. He shepherded her through each day.
“The girl’s mother called us crying,” Beth Nessralla said. “She was so grateful for everything C.J. was doing.’’
Manny, it seemed, had been born to struggle. As a child of poverty in the Dominican, he had lacked resources that the poorest Americans take for granted, such as early education. Before he bid farewell to his biological mother and traveled to the States with a family friend at age 9, he had gone to school only intermittently, ducking out when he wished.
He spoke no English and bore a scar on his wrist from fighting a boy who attacked him with a broken bottle. Manny was so unfamiliar with modern amenities that when he needed to urinate soon after arriving in America, he startled observers by doing what he done on the island: He relieved himself on a public thoroughfare.
At Holland Elementary School in Dorchester, Manny was placed in a second-grade special education program. Then he was held back, making him a 10-year-old second-grader. By the time he entered sixth grade at Orchard Gardens, he remained in special ed, despite having learned English.
“That was a red flag for us because it became very obvious very quickly that he shouldn’t be placed unjustly in a special education program,” White said. “We worked as a team to make that go away.”
Manny’s biological father, who also had traveled to Boston, was barely in the boy’s life. Manny first lived with one of his father’s former girlfriends, then settled at Lenox Street, within shouting distance of Nessralla’s apartment, with another of his dad’s exes.
Enter Nessralla. Spurred by his charitable impulses — he spent one recent summer working in a hospital in Nigeria — he joined Big Brothers Big Sisters and was directed to Lenox Street.
“Are you sure this is right?” he asked a staffer. “I was told never to cross Tremont Street.’’
But he did, and soon he was involved with the five school-aged children in Manny’s apartment. He took them to movies, bowling, the circus, Chuck E. Cheese’s, and his parents’ Avon home for cookouts, swimming, foosball, billiards, and more.
When it became clear that Manny was benefiting most from the experience, that he valued the mentorship and responded by excelling in school and maturing as an adolescent, Nessralla began investing more time and energy in the relationship. And when Manny reached a crossroads as he prepared to graduate from eighth grade at Orchard Gardens — his high school choice could significantly influence his future — Nessralla and the school staff stepped in.
Manny, as one of the city’s best young basketball players, had been hotly pursued by city high school coaches despite rules that bar them from recruiting. He became enamored of playing at Charlestown High School, though the Orchard Gardens staff considered Catholic Memorial in West Roxbury a better fit because it sends nearly every graduate to a four-year college, while Charlestown ranks among the state’s lower-performing schools.
“Public school for Manny was scary for us partly because of the neighborhood he lived in,’’ White said. “Lenox Street is rife with gangs. It’s a tough place. We didn’t want him to feel like he had to become involved in that or become a target.’’
Manny leaned so strongly toward Charlestown that by the time he recognized the advantages of Catholic Memorial, the application deadline had passed.
At that point, Nessralla wondered, what about Xaverian? He had attended the school for two years before he graduated from Archbishop Williams in Braintree. He knew people at Xaverian, a Catholic prep school for boys that also sends more than 95 percent of its graduates to four-year colleges and offers one of the state’s elite interscholastic athletic programs.
In a last-ditch effort, Nessralla helped persuade Xaverian to accept Manny’s late application and take a chance on a disadvantaged student.
By the time Xaverian admitted Manny, the school had allocated its financial aid for the academic year, leaving him with a $17,000 tuition bill. In stepped Nessralla’s sister, Alyssa, a promising rapper who goes by Alyssa Marie. She helped produce a video for an Indiegogo online fund-raising campaign that netted more than $9,000.
In the video, Manny discussed some of his challenges, among them the crime that has long plagued Lenox Street. As a child there, he witnessed a shootout and countless violent confrontations. He often heard guns popping.
Manny later described the fragile peace he has made with Lenox Street gang members. He still visits the project to see his sister.
“It’s very easy to get engaged with the stuff those guys are doing, so you try to step back a little bit and let them be,’’ he said in an interview. “They know I’m a good kid. They know I’m going to Xaverian, so they wouldn’t do anything to harm me. They live their lives and let me live mine.’’
Bayram Karagul, who owns Pizzatalia across from the project, for many years has rewarded neighborhood kids who get good grades with free sandwiches or pizza slices. But he saw something special in Manny, someone worth investing in, and wrote him a check for $300.
“This is a different America, this neighborhood,” Karagul said as the sidewalk in front of his store bustled with activity. “It’s very hard to stay out of trouble, get into a good school, and go to college. I’m proud of Manny because it’s a huge deal for a kid from these projects to do what he is doing.’’
Manny’s new extended family, the Nessralla clan of Eastern Massachusetts (Nessralla has 48 cousins), raised several thousand dollars for Manny’s tuition with a yard sale at the patriarch’s Avon garden center. Nessralla and Manny solicited the balance from the Orchard Gardens staff, Manny’s summer baseball coaches, the local Dominican community, and other Lenox Street businesses.
Yet the money would have meant little had Nessralla’s parents not embraced the teenager. Manny won them over in a host of little ways, but mostly by being himself. Knowing Beth loves the family’s outdoor flowers, he showered them with water from unfinished drinking cups during cookouts. Soon, he was emptying the dishwasher, taking out the trash, feeding the dog, making his bed, laboring in the family landscaping business, attending the family church, presenting Chuck a cold soda when he returned from work — giving every indication of how thankful he was to have his own bedroom for the first time in his life.
Beth learned to cook plantains, one of Manny’s native favorites. She stocked up on Cheetos, his go-to snack. She introduced him to Middle Eastern and Japanese cuisine. And after she shared $100 with him from her winnings on a lottery ticket, she was more impressed than distressed to learn that he had sent most of it to his needy cousins in the Dominican Republic.
Manny often expresses his gratitude to Beth and Chuck. The Nessrallas and his biological family call him Alex; everyone else knows him as Manny.
“He doesn’t take anything for granted,’’ Chuck Nessralla said. “He knows how hard everyone has worked to get him where he is, and he has picked up the ball and run with it.’’
Making it at Xaverian has been no cakewalk. Much of Manny’s freshman year was spent studying into the early morning, routinely eight hours a night, with tutoring from the Nessralla siblings: C.J., Alyssa, and Sarah.
“I know it wasn’t easy for him,’’ said John Connolly, Manny’s biology teacher, “but by the end of his freshman year, he had assimilated nicely.’’
Xaverian recognized Manny’s progress by granting him $14,000 in financial aid for his sophomore year. He has made the most of it by maintaining above-average grades, with a couple of appearances on the honor roll. He also has contributed to his tuition by cleaning the science labs.
The faculty admires his grit and good humor.
“Xaverian is a rigorous and challenging education for anyone but especially for students with second-language challenges,’’ said Matt Cavanaugh, Manny’s history teacher. “I credit Manny first and foremost for his desire. He really wants to succeed academically. Despite everything he has faced in his life, he is getting it done here, which is nothing to sneeze at.’’
Nessralla has helped by maintaining frequent contact with Manny’s teachers, coaches, and administrators. The only difference between Nessralla and Xaverian’s most actively engaged parents is his age — a phenomenon that caused Cavanaugh’s jaw to drop when Nessralla arrived for his first parent-teacher meeting.
They previously had communicated only by phone and e-mail.
“I was blown away when he walked in and said he was C.J.,’’ Cavanaugh recalled.
While Nessralla has turned heads as a surrogate parent, Manny has become popular with Xaverian students, who are predominantly white, suburban, and financially comfortable.
“A lot of the students, even if they don’t talk about it, understand Manny’s journey,” baseball coach Gerry Lambert said. “They know he has come through the kind of adversity that most of them will never experience, and they have a lot of respect for him.”
Manny, who is 6-foot-3 with an athletic physique, can dunk a basketball and is a fierce rebounder. He was a major contributor to Xaverian’s varsity basketball team as a sophomore and received the team’s “unsung hero’’ award.
But Manny is considered most likely to attract collegiate athletic scholarship offers for baseball. A power pitcher whose fastball has been clocked at 88 miles per hour and who can mix in a deceiving slider, he saw action as a sophomore reliever this past season and is scheduled to tour the country this summer for a series of national tournaments with the elite Boston Astros.
Manny hopes to follow two of his Dominican cousins who recently signed contracts with Major League Baseball organizations.
Yet tensions sometimes arise because Nessralla cares less about Manny’s extracurriculars than he does about raising him well. He sets rules that occasionally rankle.
When Nessralla recently advised him to shave his scruffy whiskers, Manny pushed back, asking why a young man only nine years his senior should police his facial hair. But he eventually shaved.
“As much as he gives me grief for certain things, I’ve never really had a problem with him,’’ Nessralla said. “I think he knows I have his best interests at heart. I don’t tell him to do stupid things. Like, he can go out with his friends as long as it’s not a school night.’’
One school day, Nessralla called Xaverian basketball coach Rob Bruckner and asked him to instruct Manny to go to the library after school rather than leave campus with friends.
Manny immediately balked. “Why?’’ he demanded.
But even before Bruckner could say, “Because . . .’’ Manny backtracked.
“OK,” he said, “I will not leave [campus].’’
The incident confirmed for Bruckner what many others know.
“Manny trusts C.J.,’’ he said. “It’s easy to say they have an amazing relationship, but it really is nothing short of that.’’
Over time, their bond has been enriched by other relationships. Nessralla, after parting last year with a girlfriend who balked at his devotion to Manny, is now dating a doctor who, he said, “absolutely adores’’ his guardianship role.
Manny, meanwhile, dedicates much of his free time to his sister, Paoly, who graduates this month from Orchard Gardens. He has tried to watch over her as intensely as Nessralla has looked after him, though his tough-love approach has softened a bit.
“Manny used to be very overprotective of Paoly,’’ White said. “But you can see how much he has matured lately by how he shows his love for her. Now, instead of telling her, ‘You’re never allowed to date,’ he says, ‘You need to remember to make the right choices.’ ”
Manny said he regrets that Paoly remains at Lenox Street, but he is heartened that she will commute to Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School next fall through the Metco program.
Paoly often visits the Avon home, having become especially close to Nessralla’s sisters. Sometimes, she stays over, spending part of the night gathered in the living room with Manny, C.J., and the rest of the Nessrallas, a blended family united by a college kid who chose to cross a forbidden street.
In moments like those, Manny can count his blessings.
“This family,’’ he said, “is the best thing that ever happened to me.’’