Denis Caceres, 19, center, thought he lost the chance to...

Denis Caceres, 19, center, thought he lost the chance to go to college after he witnessed his father's murder, and his family lost most of their income. A group of Northport high school students helped raise the money to send him back to Nassau Community College. (Jan. 31, 2012) Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

A quietly devout young Huntington Station man, cast into "a haze of grief" after his father's murder two years ago, has renewed hope for his future, thanks to generous strangers touched by his plight.

On Jan. 24, 2010, Denis Caceres, 19, saw his father, Geremias Caceres, shot dead during a botched robbery in front of their home. With the family struggling from the loss of his father's income, Denis Caceres dropped out of Nassau Community College last fall and feared he'd never return to study music.

But strangers moved by his story raised enough money to send him back to the college last month.

"I definitely thought I wasn't going to make it," said the soft-spoken Caceres. "I don't even know what to think. It's like a miracle."

That miracle took root in September, when jury selection began for Geremias Caceres' killer, Ralph Guerrier.

One of the potential jurors was Andrea Miller, 52, of Northport. She wasn't selected, but when Guerrier was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison two months later, she read in Newsday about Denis Caceres being forced to leave school.

"I made it my Christmas charity," Miller said. "I told myself, whatever I can do will be better than nothing."

She called the college and set up a scholarship for Denis Caceres through the Nassau Community College Foundation. She spread the word among her friends and family. She got in touch with Students for 60,000, a student group at Northport High School that has worked to improve villages in Nicaragua and to teach English to Latino immigrants in Farmingville, among other projects.

After a vote, the group -- named for the number of homeless people in New York City when it was founded in 1987 -- raised more than $1,000 for the scholarship fund, about half of the tuition bill.

"They know the importance of education to this population," said the group's adviser, Lisa Perez Flanagan. "They were very affected by Andrea's presentation of his story."

Other donors enlisted by Miller contributed to the remaining tuition bill.

Miller said she was even more determined to help once she met Denis Caceres after launching the fundraising effort.

"Denis was in this kind of haze of grief," she said.

The teenager had seen his mother, Blanca, sink into depression over losing the man she loved since their childhood in El Salvador. His 8-year-old brother, Brandon, suffered constant nightmares.

"His therapy was going to school," Miller said. "I thought that would be the worst thing, to take this away from a family trying to better itself."

Denis Caceres made an impression with his humility and gratitude last month when he came to Northport High School with Miller to thank the student group in person, Perez Flanagan said.

Dawn DiStefano, executive director of the Nassau Community College Foundation, said Denis Caceres' return to school was "bittersweet" -- a heartening end to a story with an awful beginning. "We were happy to move this along," she said.

Glenn Kurtzrock, the Suffolk prosecutor who convicted Guerrier and his accomplices with the help of Denis Caceres' emotionally vivid testimony, said he was delighted that the young man was back at school.

"He seemed to me to be a really nice, well-grounded kid," Kurtzrock said. "It kind of renews your faith in the human spirit."

Denis Caceres said since his return to school, "I have my mind right." He is again focused on a future of teaching music to children and continuing to play percussion, piano and other instruments in his church, Genesis Assembly of God in Westbury.

He is grateful to Miller and the donors she enlisted.

"She's an awesome person," he said. "There aren't many who have a heart like hers."

Denis Caceres said he is determined not to let his benefactors down.

"It touched us," he said. "I'm really grateful. I realize I'm surrounded by people, by great people."

He said his father's slaying still casts a shadow over his family's life, but the end of the criminal case and his return to school has finally allowed everyone to feel they can move forward.

"I'm still going to have those days when I feel down," he said. "But no matter what, just keep on going with life. Nothing's impossible. I have faith that God is really with me."

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