Robert Figueroa

Robert Figueroa grew up surrounded by gangs. He and his twin brother became involved by proximity.

“It’s not that I chose that life,” explains the resident of Florida’s Gulf Coast. “It’s just, you chill with those people, and then everyone assumes you’re in a gang.”

His parents did everything they could to stop him and his brother, Figueroa adds. “I promise you, they punished us. We were just too dumb. We didn’t care.”

Gang members “put you on the spot,” he says. “They tell you, ‘You’re either with us or against us.’ Either way, you get beat up. I got jumped at 11 years old. Three people jump you; they jump you to see if you’ll fight back or if you’re going to be too scared. I went home that day and my mom started crying. She looked at me. She already knew.”

Fast forward seven years. “At the time, I was working construction,” Figueroa remembers, “and I had bought a brand-new car. I was driving down a dark street — real dark — and somebody threw a rock at the car, so I stopped. My brother, he gets out and he starts cussing … and it was a whole party of people. I got out, thinking nothing was going to happen.

“We started fighting, and the next thing you know, somebody pulls a shotgun. He pulled the gun on my face, and I was like, ‘If you’re going to shoot me, shoot me.’ And he shot me.”

That was two years ago. “You can see, I still have BBs,” Figueroa refers to the gun pellets that riddled his face. “They got me in the eye. I got shot in my teeth.”

Eventually requiring four surgeries, his recovery was long and painful. The brothers tried to put the shooting behind them. Hoping it would cheer him, their mother took Robert on a visit to her native Honduras, since only their immediate family members were living in the United States. His twin stayed behind.

“We flew to Honduras. I met all my family,” he says. Returning from a walk one evening, he found everyone crying. “My mom just tells me, ‘Your best friend and your brother are dead.’

“My brother got shot. It was three streets from where I got shot.”

According to Figueroa, his brother and his friend had been in a fight before the shooting but managed to escape. As the two walked on a main road, the shooters allegedly drove by, then opened fire with an automatic weapon.

“My brother was shot 17 times,” he remembers, “and my friend was shot five times. While I was at the funeral, I was like, ‘I don’t know what to do with my life.’ My mom asked me, ‘What are you going to do now?’ ”

Figueroa pauses. “Then she told me, ‘Why don’t you go back to school?’ ”

Healing

Figueroa visited Vicki Miller at Manatee Technical Institute (MTI) in Bradenton, explaining what had happened. Miller arranged for him to attend without tuition. Signing up for David Stinnette’s classes in boat and yacht building and repair, he got involved in SkillsUSA.

The student credits Stinnette for helping him succeed. “He’s counseled me,” he says. “He’s told me some wise stuff.”

His emotional and physical scars now healing, his eyesight returning, Figueroa filled in for a contestant on MTI’s Opening and Closing Ceremonies team. Soon after competing at the SkillsUSA Championships in Kansas City, Mo., he recites part of the SkillsUSA creed used in that contest: “To prepare myself by diligent study and ardent practice …

“Just the first sentence makes so much sense to me in my life. If you want to be prepared, you’ve got to study. You’ve got to be ready. You’ve got to be willing. You’ve got to want it.

“I came to school and it flipped my whole life around,” Figueroa points out.

“I never in my life ever thought that I would be in Kansas City, never thought that I’d be competing. I never thought I’d leave Florida.

“I don’t know, when stuff like that [gang violence] happens to you and then you have new people surrounding you [at MTI] … your mind develops, you mature. You’re like, ‘You know what, I don’t have to live the life I lived before.’ Now I can get on a boat and go fishing, go bowling. I never did things like this as a kid.”

Figueroa now has his sights set on working in the boat building field and getting paid for doing something he loves. He doesn’t want pity, and he doesn’t want to work around grouchy people. “It makes life harder,” he explains. “My ideal is to live life, get married, have a family and have kids.

“Before, I never smiled. Now when I sleep, I twitch and I’m smiling. That’s how happy I am. I never in my life thought that I’d be doing this.”