Aspiring journalist from Queens overcomes disability, wins Héctor Figueroa scholarship

East Elmhurst resident Christopher Alvarez survived a sever skeletal disorder to become the first recipient of the Héctor Figueroa Scholarship award. (Courtesy of Christopher Alvarez)

One year after the powerful labor leader Héctor Figueroa of Jackson Heights died of a heart attack, his union, 32BJ SEIU, unveiled a new scholarship in his honor.

Queens resident Christopher Alvarez, 22, a survivor of a rare disability and a graduate of Adelphi University, where he was his class valedictorian, will attend Columbia University in the fall to pursue a master’s degree in journalism.

A son of Colombian immigrants and an East Elmhurst resident, Alvarez was born with thanatophoric dysplasia, a severe skeletal disorder. His doctors said he would only live for five years.

“I am a disabled young man who has spent his life proving how abled I am through hard work and determination along with a commitment to staying and spreading positivity,” Alvarez said. “Real gifts are those that will stick with you for a long time and for me education is the greatest gift. If I am given the opportunity to do my Ph.D. in journalism, I would do it in a heartbeat because education will never abandon you and with your knowledge, you can change the world, enlightening others along the way.”

Alvarez was one of 31 recipients to receive scholarships of up to $32,000 to students of members of 32BJ SEIU, the largest property services union in the country. Figueroa’s wife Deidre presented Alvarez with his scholarship.

“The legacy of Héctor Figueroa, the late leader of 32BJ SEIU, lives on in our union every day,” 32BJ SEIU President Kyle Bragg said. “Héctor devoted every moment of his life to fighting for justice for others. He was a thoughtful, humble and impactful leader who continues to inspire us all.”

Héctor Figueroa (l.) with his successor Kyle Bragg at a union rally. (Courtesy of 32BJ SEIU)

Bragg, a Rosedale resident, was executive vice president last year when he automatically assumed leadership last year under the union’s constitution just days after Figueroa’s passing on July 11, 2019, age 57.

“This year we’re excited to unveil a new scholarship in his honor. The Héctor Figueroa Scholarship award celebrates a student who most embodies the pursuit of community activism and social justice. I am proud that this award, in his name, is going to Christopher Alvarez, who will continue the fight for justice as he embarks on an advanced graduate degree in journalism,” Bragg said. “I am confident he will carry on Héctor’s legacy. I am so proud of all of this year’s recipients, they stand for hard work, integrity, and the American Dream, and in trying times like now, I am optimistic that the future of tomorrow is in good hands.”.

In addition to watching old cinema and documentaries in his spare time, Alvarez also enjoys connecting with his fans on social media reminding them that life goals are worth living fighting for no matter one’s limitations.

“I have always liked the quote, “You were born an original, don’t die a copy.’ And this is what I want to tell the whole world,” Alvarez said. “We are all beautiful in our own way. We are all smart in our own way and we are all talented in our own way. You don’t need to change for anyone or be approved by anyone. Love yourself first and accept who you are so you can be the light for everyone else.”

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