For the last 13 years, Joan Mazzotti has made a public career of helping low-income, first-generation students from Philadelphia's public high schools get into and through college.
Quietly, she and her husband, Michael Kelly, also have made it a personal mission in the case of two Haitian-born orphans, who received their degrees Sunday at Haverford College, a selective, liberal arts school on the Main Line.
In true fashion as the stand-in parents they have become to Ralph and Ruben Alexis, Mazzotti and Kelly got to the ceremony early and staked out seats in the fourth row. They took video as Ralph Alexis, 21, a French major, stepped on stage at the Alumni Field House to receive his diploma along with nearly 300 graduates. Afterward, a beaming Ralph embraced Mazzotti and Kelly.
"It's been a long journey," he said.
His brother, Ruben, 24, got his degree in religion but did not walk in the processional.
"It feels great," Ruben said, joining the family after the program. He called Mazzotti and Kelly a "great and very constant presence in our lives."
Mazzotti, executive director of Philadelphia Futures, and Kelly, a retired lawyer, met Ralph and Ruben when they were recommended for the Futures mentoring program. The brothers moved in with their aunt in North Philadelphia in 2004 after their parents died in what Mazzotti and the young men described only as "tragic circumstances." The family had been living in Brooklyn since the brothers' father fled Haiti in 2000, seeking political asylum.
Kelly first mentored Ruben at Fels High, then Ralph, who attended Northeast High. The relationship blossomed after Ralph turned 18 and headed to college, and it became clear the brothers then were on their own, Mazzotti said. Ralph stayed at their home during summers and college breaks.
Mazzotti and Kelly were frantic when Ralph briefly went missing in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Then a Haverford freshman, he had been visiting family. He narrowly eluded a collapsing cinder-block wall, spent two fitful nights in a cornfield, and had trouble getting a flight out. Mazzotti and Kelly worked the phones for several days until they found help.
"I think we realized that we were Ralph's support system, total support system," Mazzotti said.
Ralph, who is gentle and soft-spoken with a hearty laugh, seemed to blink back tears.
"They were there for me emotionally," he said.
Mazzotti, 62, grew up on Long Island and earned a degree in political science from Rider University and a law degree from Villanova University. Kelly, 59, who grew up in Neptune, N.J., also has a law degree from Villanova and an undergraduate degree in humanistic studies from Johns Hopkins University. They met while working as lawyers at Aramark.
In 2000, Mazzotti took a call from a search firm looking for someone to head Philadelphia Futures, a 24-year-old nonprofit that has helped 1,121 students with their high school and college quests.
"I wanted to go someplace where I lived my values every day," Mazzotti said. "Mike and I both feel passionately about the lack of educational equity."
Kelly retired in 2001 and has been doing volunteer work, including mentoring students in Philadelphia Futures. The couple live in Haverford, near the college. Together they have one son, Andrew, who will graduate next week from Johns Hopkins with a degree in mechanical engineering. He will pursue his master's degree there. Kelly also has a son, Michael Jr., 31, a mechanical engineer who lives in Massachusetts.
In a telephone interview Sunday, Andrew said he was happy that he and Ralph, who have become like brothers, are about the same age and have had the same experiences, including the same parental pressure to make sure they got things done.
"We got the same love," he said. "In the long run, we both know how important that is."
The relationship between the Alexis brothers and Mazzotti and Kelly goes far beyond the typical mentoring in Philadelphia Futures, Mazzotti said.
"This just was born of circumstances," she said.
Mazzotti was inspired by Ralph's resilience: "I don't know how he even put one foot in front of the other some days because there would be so many challenges, and he did. That's a lesson for everybody."
Ralph smiled: "Could not have done it without you guys. That's for sure."
Ralph and Ruben are the 10th and 11th Philadelphia Futures students to graduate from Haverford.
Mazzotti is proud of the statistics for Futures students who, like Ralph, were in the 2009 high school class. Of the 47 - all graduates of neighborhood high schools - 28 are earning degrees this year, with an additional 11 still in school. Students have attended community colleges, state universities, small private colleges, and Ivy League schools, including the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton.
It's the best graduation statistic the organization has seen in its history, she said, aided in particular by a $100,000 donation that Futures used to bridge the financial-aid gap for students attending state universities. As a result, 10 of the 11 students who received the money are graduating, she said.
"We do everything we can to find financial resources for students," she said. "We want them to graduate with minimal debt because they don't have sufficient financial safety nets."
Ruben and Ralph, who also earned a certificate in business from a summer program at Villanova, graduated with less than $5,000 in debt each.
At Haverford, Ralph worked in the provost's office and received a generous aid package from the school. Mazzotti and Kelly helped with the extras, such as books and clothes and the Villanova program.
Ralph will start work this week at the Hotel Sofitel in Philadelphia, hoping to move up in the business and transfer to its Paris site. He studied in the French capital at the Sorbonne for a semester and loved it.
Ruben was to graduate from Haverford in 2010 but took time off to work, then train at the Society of St. John the Evangelist monastery in Cambridge, where he plans to return.
The Alexis brothers' circumstances underscore the deep needs of some students, Mazzotti said.
"I really believe that people have an obligation to look beyond your own children to see if there's somebody else that you can help come of age," she said. "That's what our mentoring program is, and that's what we did here."