His dream was to establish a home in the United States, raise a family and support his parents and an older brother in El Salvador. That dream came crashing down in February 2004 when Alvarez slipped on ice while working on a car. He hit the back of his head and suffered serious injuries to his left shoulder and lower back.
He tried to continue working through the pain for about a week, but a doctor told him he would have to give up work, permanently. At the time, Alvarez, now 53, was an employee of the Village of Westbury's Sanitation Department. When he quit he also lost his health insurance, he said.
'We will get through this'
"I felt bad," said Alvarez, who gained his U.S citizenship but still speaks only Spanish. His only child, George, 19, interpreted. Alvarez said he worried about how he would meet his medical costs and provide for his wife, Milagros, and George, who was in middle school at the time.
He had purchased a house in Uniondale four years before he was injured, but the accident left him with no money to pay his utility bills or buy food. He couldn't pay medical bills stemming from the accident, or afford treatments for pre-existing diabetes and high blood pressure, a duodenal ulcer he developed and other health issues he was battling.
"What little my mom was making as a house cleaner wasn't sufficient," George said.
He, too, was feeling the strain.
"Ideally I wanted to focus on my schoolwork," he said, "but the stress and constant worrying took a toll. It's kind of hard to focus on your schoolwork when you're worried about possibly losing your house. Mom was the strong one. 'It's just a phase,' she said. 'It will pass. We will get through this.' "
It turns out mother did know best, and the family's life did take a turn for the better.
Milagros, a Catholic, followed up on a referral she got from her church. Caseworkers at the nonprofit Family & Children's Association in Mineola -- the oldest and largest human services network on Long Island -- took the family under its wing.
"We serve people from birth to the end of life, people in the most fragile situations," such as abuse, foster care or homelessness, said Nicole Rosow, team director of the Village of Hempstead Initiative for the association. "It's a critical piece for families who have challenges. We try to protect, strengthen and help people manage the chaos."
Free to pursue dreams
The association holds an annual Scholarship Reception fundraiser, now in its 26th year, to provide a college education for students in its homeless programs, foster care and other programs for children. This year's reception is June 21 at Jericho Terrace. Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice is the honoree.
"We wanted immediate help," George Alvarez recalled, "and with open arms they took us in. They referred us to an emergency food kitchen, gave us gift cards for supermarkets, clothing, school supplies and emotional support. They referred us to Rotacare Clinic in Uniondale (which provides primary health care for uninsured individuals) so my father could get treatment for his pre-existing conditions."
With the association's help, Alvarez is receiving Workers' Compensation payments and Social Security disability income.
Freed of the stress, George is involved in pre-med studies at John's Hopkins University, laying the groundwork for a career as a gastroenterologist. He is fulfilling a dream he and his father long shared.
"He is very intelligent," Alvarez said. "He is going to be a doctor and will help people."
But his son's not waiting to finish his studies to do that.
George refers people with needs to the Family & Children's Association, and also volunteers at the Rotacare Clinic.
"I translate and do whatever they want me to do," he said. "I relate to everyone because I was there with my dad."George did not qualify for a scholarship from the group, but because of the stability its assistance gave his family so he could stay in school, George got financial aid, grants and scholarships to further his education.