ST. PETERSBURG — With his small earnings from his job at a Sweetbay Supermarket, Nikenson Cenatus was a ray of hope for his impoverished family in Haiti.
He had come here two years ago, unable to walk without crutches and in severe pain, for life-changing surgery. He stayed when an earthquake ravaged his country. He got a job, started taking classes and was talking about getting a degree in accounting.
Saturday, though, friends here delivered tragic news to Cenatus' mother, who lives on the remote Haitian island of La Gonave.
Cenatus, 19, apparently drowned off the beach at Fort De Soto Park on Saturday afternoon, Pinellas sheriff's deputies said.
He was at the North Beach area as part of a group from Sanctification Haitian Baptist Church, when he waded into the water just before 2:30 p.m., deputies said.
A friend said he couldn't swim.
When he didn't return, members of the group began looking for him. They found him floating in the surf. Cenatus was pulled from the water, and a beachgoer attempted CPR, deputies said.
Firefighters arrived and took Cenatus to All Children's Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Deputies said the death is not suspicious. An autopsy will be performed.
Cenatus, whose story was told in the St. Petersburg Times, arrived here in 2009 through the help of Partners With Haiti, a ministry of St. Paul's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg.
He had broken his hip during a soccer game, but had no medical resources in Haiti, where village women tried helping him with home remedies. The ministry group arranged for Cenatus to have surgery here.
"We're all in shock," Dr. Mark Morris, a pediatrician who helped arrange for Cenatus' successful surgery, said Saturday.
Morris gathered with others Saturday night at the home of Gabrielle Berthelot, a Haitian widow who opened her home at age 86 to Cenatus and considered him like a son.
"It's so sad. It's so sad,'' Berthelot repeated.
They made telephone contact with Cenatus' uncle in Port-au-Prince, who was able to get news of the death to the young man's mother.
"He actually told me she could not talk to him on the phone,'' said Berthelot's daughter, Micki Morency, who spoke from Hawaii. "She was so overwhelmed. She couldn't come to the phone."
The youngest of five children, Cenatus ended up staying here on an extended visa after the earthquake. He completed English classes at Tomlinson Adult Learning Center and was looking forward to taking his GED exam.
"He wanted to get his degree in accounting before he went back," Morris said. "Even at his age, he essentially was the head of his family. Even with his small wages from Sweetbay, he was still sending money home.''
Cenatus was also helping to put his sister through nursing school, Morency said. "He was so proud of that," she said.
At the Sweetbay on 22nd Street S, Cenatus started pushing grocery carts about a year ago, then was promoted to bagger, and then moved behind the seafood counter.
"I looked at him as a son, because he was just a special little guy," Sweetbay evening manager Henry Smith said. "He was a hard, smart worker. Couldn't come any better."
Jim Stitt, president of Partners With Haiti, said: "He was such an inspiration to all of us at Partners With Haiti and everyone who knew him, and always will be."
This year, Cenatus went to his first July Fourth celebration.
"He had never seen fireworks," said Gabrielle Berthelot's youngest son, Richard Berthelot, a school resource officer at St. Petersburg High School. "Every time the thing went 'boom,' he said, 'That's the best one.' "
In an interview last year, Cenatus said he was hopeful.
"I walk now. I even go to school. I have a job,'' Cenatus said. "I feel great, happy.''
Waveney Anne Moore can be reached at (727) 892-2283 or email@example.com. Luis Perez can be reached at (727) 892-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org.