AUBURN — Four years ago Christian O’Brien, his younger brother and their mother were homeless.

O’Brien, now 18, attended four schools in one year as the family moved from place to place couch-surfing. For three months one summer they lived in a tent pitched in a friend’s yard.

Finally, O’Brien’s mother, Andrea Emch, found work and saved enough to get an apartment in Lewiston. “We didn’t have beds. We didn’t have anything but what friends gave us,” Emch said. They had a home.

This Thanksgiving, O’Brien said there’s three things he’s especially thankful for.

“Most important, my mom,” he said. “My mom has been there for my brother and I through thick and thin. She’s been our rock.”

He’s grateful for his longtime karate teacher, Glen Fitzmaurice. “Glen has taught me to persevere. He’s taught me self-confidence. He’s taught me how to be the man I want to become.”

And he’s thankful for the Boys & Girls Club of Southern Maine’s Auburn/Lewiston Clubhouse. It helped him have a place to be normal when things were tough. “Without it I don’t think we’d be here today the way we are,” he said.

Today, O’Brien, a senior at Lewiston High School, works after school as a gym teacher for the Boys and Girls Club. He’s been a member since the second grade and a frequent volunteer. In the summer he teaches karate, his passion.

Last spring he was named Youth of the Year for the Auburn club.

In the fall he volunteered to speak for the United Way campaign, sharing his family’s story to illustrate how donations help families.

His attitude has turned some heads.

Their story from down and out to back on their feet began in Florida, where the family lived when O’Brien was a toddler.

Their mother worked nights at a convenience store. More than once she was robbed at work. The last time the robber physically “used me to get out the door,” she said.

She decided to move to a safer place. One person she worked with was from Maine. “It sounded like Mayberry, what we needed,” she said.

She gave a two-week notice, packed everything she could fit into the car and drove north.

The family eventually lived in Randolph where she got a job at her son’s school. She signed her sons up at the Boys and Girls Club in Gardiner.

There they met Glen Fitzmaurice, who was doing a karate demonstration. O’Brien began taking lessons from him.

“None of us knew Christian would find his passion in karate, that passion has led him down the journey he’s taken,” Emch said.

Fitzmaurice became part of their lives. “Neither of the boys had a positive male role model in their lives,” she said.

A few years later they moved to her native South Carolina. In 2010 after several relatives died, Emch decided to try to reconnect with family and repair broken relationships.

“She thought after the deaths she could go back and fix things,” O’Brien said.

Things didn’t go well.

As the new kid in school without a southern accent, O’Brien was bullied. “He was beaten up,” his mother said.

Meanwhile, she couldn’t find work. “I lost everything. I lost our car, our money. After six months I realized Maine was our real home.”

By January 2011 they made it to Lewiston-Auburn, but with no resources. That’s when they became homeless.

“I knew I needed to find a Boys and Girls Club,” she said. “In Gardiner it had been a godsend to us.” The family became part of the Auburn club.

O’Brien said he remembers walking through the door. “It was just fantastic,” he said. “This was a place I could come in and have fun, hang out with friends, forget about everything going on in my life.”

As they moved from couch to couch, as the boys moved from the Auburn Middle School to the Lewiston Middle School, “it was difficult,” Christian said. “I knew my mom was being worn down.” He was too young to help. “I was just going with the flow. My mom was taking us to a lot of places.”

Sometimes he and his brother asked her, “‘What are we doing?’” he said. “I kept hoping it was all going to change. At some point it did.”

What helped her turn their lives around, his mother said, was getting a job at the Auburn club. Eventually, she landed her current position as a lunch lady at the Lewiston Middle School. “I love cooking. I love kids,” she said. “It’s the perfect job.”

While homeless, O’Brien lost access to his passion, karate.

One day they were at a yard sale hosted by Auburn club Director Andie Hannon, who had gotten to know O’Brien. He was eyeing a bike for sale. Hannon made an offer: If he gave kids at the club karate lessons, she’d give him the bike.

He enthusiastically said yes. He got in touch with his Gardiner karate instructor, who came to Auburn to help him teach.

“I felt joy come back into my life,” he said. “I saw kids smiling. You’re teaching them something. You see they love it. They’re absorbing this knowledge from you. This is exactly what I want to do.”

As he taught, “I’m thinking about my story, how I was bullied. I teach them not to fight but to understand how to get out of that situation, like my teacher taught me.”

Discipline lessons from karate also helped him in 2014 when his mother suffered a heart attack.

Acting as an adult, he calmly talked to 911 officials as the ambulance raced to their home.

“This young man’s my hero,” Emch said of her son.

Doctors discovered and corrected a blockage. She recovered.

After O’Brien graduates in June, he plans to attend the University of Maine at Farmington or Central Maine Community College in Auburn, depending upon financial aid.

He wants to major in business, to help him run a karate studio, and minor in education, to help him teach.

All of their struggles were “meant to be,” Emch said. “Both my boys are big in giving back to the community.” While O’Brien’s goal is to teach karate, her younger son, Cameron, wants to become a mechanical engineer. “There’s no doubt in my mind they will achieve their dream.”

Christian agrees.

“My mom says all the things that happened to us, there’s nothing else that can happen. We can persevere through anything. We are stronger,” he said.



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