A Hero Finds His Way Home

A Hero Finds His Way Home

James Le is a military veteran born and raised in the “city of broad shoulders.” His parents immigrated to Chicago from Vietnam seeking the American dream and a better life for their children. Le and his sister were bright kids whose parents felt that education was the key to success. But their Uptown Chicago neighborhood was fraught with gangs and poverty. 

The Les applied their children to Boys Hope Girls Hope, a residential academic program in a Chicago suburb, hoping that it would be a launching pad for them to prosper. Their daughter was accepted, but their son James was not. Thankfully, they were told about an alternative for young James—Mercy Home for Boys & Girls. 

A family friend was a Catholic nun and knew about Mercy Home’s mission to provide children in Chicago with the safety, encouragement, and resources they needed to thrive. She convinced Mr. and Mrs. Le that Mercy Home would be a good fit for their son. His parents loved James dearly and only wanted the best for him; so, they made a tough decision to send him to live at Mercy Home on the city’s near West Side. James Le was 12 years old.  

Le was always close to his parents but now found himself far from his familiar surroundings. That loneliness made for a difficult transition. For a long time, he found it difficult to understand why his parents would send him away to live with strangers. In his heart, he knew they wanted him to have the best tools available to succeed. But being away from his home was challenging. He began to rebel.  

“When I was a kid, honestly the reason I rebelled, was because I felt like my parents didn’t want me,” Le said.  

He would question the staff and their motives. 

“At Mercy, you’re having people tell you things for your own best interest, but you don’t know these people, so you have to build those relationships.”   

Not seeing kids of his race added another layer of complexity in adjusting to life at Mercy Home. 

Although he longed for his old life back in Uptown, the dedicated coworkers at Mercy Home were determined to guide Le through this challenging time.  

Jim Marrese, who today serves as Mercy Home’s Director of Strategic Initiatives and Business, was a youth care worker and James’ advocate at that time. 

“James was a shy kid when he came to us, very quiet” Marrese said. “He found it hard to really open up with you and share what he was feeling at any time.” 

But Marrese never gave up on Le, despite the young man’s resistance. Marrese worked with Le on the essentials of everyday life, like making sure he got to school on time, helping him with his homework, and most of all, earning Le’s trust as a concerned adult who was always willing to lend an ear.  

“I saw him really transform from a quiet and reserved kid into this outgoing and independent guy we all know today,” Marrese said.  

Marrese’s dependability not only helped Le accept the help Mercy Home offered, it left a lasting impression that continues today.  

“He’s a very genuine person,” Le said. “It’s comforting to know him as a person first, and then realizing that what he’s telling you is coming for the heart.”  

During his time at the Mercy Home, Le attended Loyola Academy, coincidentally, Marrese’s alma mater, where he discovered his passion for sports and exercise. His high school P.E teacher was also the school’s track coach and was impressed with Le’s speed. He invited him to try out for the team, but Le had little interest in competing as a runner.  

“I never knew what track was. I never knew what cross country was,” Le said. “I had no idea what any of those sports were. For me living at Mercy Home, I was just trying to get home, get back to school, and get to school in the morning on time.”

He couldn’t imagine just yet that running would ultimately play a pivotal role as a coping mechanism and that it would one day reunite him with his advocate, Jim Marrese.  

Le graduated from high school and joined the U.S Navy. His recruiter advised him to make sure he entered boot camp physically fit. Le hit the ground running, preparing for his service by jogging along Lake Michigan. It was there where Chicago’s stellar skyline met its shimmering shoreline that Le’s affinity for running began to blossom. 

Life aboard a naval vessel was often stressful and demanding. Seeking a break from the strenuous daily work, Le dedicated his time off to exercise. “I had a set time when I ran. I needed running; I needed a stress outlet,” Le said. But it also helped me keep disciplined.”  

In 2010 Le was honorably discharged from the Navy and the next chapter of his life unfolded back in Chicago. He enrolled in classes at DePaul University. Although he was thankful to be back home and away from the pressures of military life, he sunk into a deep depression. He couldn’t sleep at night, and it was difficult to do his schoolwork.  Le decided to take the year off from school to get back on the right path. Once again, he turned to running as an outlet. “Running to me did multiple things,” Le said. “It cleared my mind. When I’m running my mind is actually able to focus.”  

Around 2011, Le’s friend asked him if he wanted to run the Bank of America Shamrock Shuffle, a popular 8K run that kicks off the competitive running season in Chicagoland. Le accepted the challenge. From that moment on, he was hooked on competitive distance running, signing up for various running events around town.  

One day, he told the DePaulia student newspaper in 2014, he learned that Mercy Home fielded a team of volunteers who raised funds organization by running the Chicago Marathon. So, he asked whether he could get a shirt to wear during his runs to represent and promote the place that had put him on the road to success in the first place.

He ended up doing so, so much more.  

Le signed up to run his first Bank of America Chicago Marathon that year as a member of the Mercy Home Heroes. In 2017, he earned his degree in information technology from DePaul. And last year, Le ran his seventh Chicago Marathon for Mercy Home.  Today he avidly runs and bikes throughout Chicago. “Running is progressing based on what you do, and no one can force you to be better unless you want to in running,” Le said. 

He is preparing to compete in a triathlon this year with his partners, Dean Pfaff and Sally Joe Morris who are both enthusiastic supporters of Mercy Home.  

James Le, a first-generation American kid from Chicago, served his country and continues to serve as an inspiration to teammates and to Mercy Home youth alike. 

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