Before he became an American, Brent Reuer lived the hard life.
He was born in Guatemala City, Guatemala, near the end of the bloody Guatemalan Civil War. He was kidnapped when he was just a few weeks old.
"I was stolen from my real mom when I was pretty young," said Reuer, of Coeur d'Alene. "I think the lady who stole me did that for a living. She would do home invasions and steal babies and basically sell them to the militia."
The local police found him when he was about 2 months old after multiple reports of home invasions and missing children.
"They found me in a house full of other babies; some were alive, some weren't," he said. "I was one of the very lucky ones."
Reuer, now 28, spent six years of his childhood in an orphanage. He said it has been speculated that his parents were either killed or they abandoned him, and he knows nothing of where he comes from other than the city of his birth.
"I don't know anything about me," he said. "I don't exactly know where I was born, what time I was born, what date, I don't know my real name."
He said he celebrates his birthday on Nov. 24.
In the orphanage, Reuer had to fend for himself. He grew up fast in a bleak environment void of love and intimate personal relationships. He was one of many young boys who dreamed of having a family and being cared for by nurturing parents.
That dream finally came true for Reuer when a Sandpoint couple chose him to be their new son. He joined the family of Dr. Kirkland and Paula Reuer in December 1992.
"Being adopted was crazy. I guess I just thought I was going to a different world," Brent said. "I remember the first time being on a plane and everybody just looked so different. Coming into Spokane and everybody's white, Caucasian, and everything around me is white. I thought it was clouds and I thought it was Heaven. I literally thought I flew into Heaven."
It was a huge culture shock for the young Guatemalan boy. His new parents didn't really speak Spanish and he didn't know a word of English, but he said they and his new siblings really made an effort to teach him. Still, he went through identity crises and had difficulties emotionally attaching to his new family.
"That was the biggest thing," he said. "Learning to attach or open my heart to people."
His heart did open eventually, but he was still haunted by the memories of the orphanage and his early childhood. He never thought about going back and making peace with his native country - until this year.
Brent, who has been a been a banquet server at The Coeur d'Alene Resort for 10 years, has become friends with Rotary members who attend monthly meetings there. Late last year the Rotarians discussed the Guatemala Literacy Project, which provides textbooks and school supplies to underprivileged children in Guatemala, and someone asked Brent to share his story with the group. Moved by his experiences, the Sunrise Rotary told him they would pay for his trip if he would return to his native country and bring hope and inspiration to the children.
"I left that place with a bad taste," he said. "I had bad memories there, so I was kind of hesitant ... there was definitely a lot of mixed emotions, but I was excited. I was like, 'It's time for me to do it.'"
Brent joined nearly 40 international Rotarians in partnership with Cooperative for Education to visit 35 different schools and bring much-needed books, pencils, sharpeners, sports equipment and positive energy to the kids, many of whom struggle just to get high school educations. Brent said it was the most amazing experience of his life, however it did not happen without an emotional reaction.
"Just seeing how innocent these kids are, I think that's what hit me hardest because it was about that time that I came (to America)," he said. "I could see a lot of these kids as me when I was younger."
After years of being ashamed and hurt by his past, Brent was able to lift up children with educational gifts while healing his own heart in the process. And he finally had an opportunity to appreciate the culture.
"I didn't know what the Guatemala culture was, I never really got a taste of it. I was ashamed of where I came from because of the bad experiences," he said. "I'm not ashamed anymore. I'm very proud of where I come from, but I'm also proud of being an American and being given an opportunity that has allowed me to be so grateful of what my parents have given me.
"Coming back, it was a big healing. It was a huge healing that allowed me to forgive," he said. "It allowed me to forgive, and that was the biggest thing that held me up for quite a few years. It's like a thorn in your thigh."
With a head held high, a beaming smile and a personality that exudes positivity, Brent plans to pursue a law degree and give back to the community or the world whenever he can. He praises God for "always having my back" and he values education more than ever now that he understands how valuable it is and how much it can be taken for granted.
And someday, he just might go back to Guatemala and sponsor a child who needs love, much like he did 22 years ago.
"My goal is not for people to feel sorry for me, that's the big thing," Brent said. "My goal is to not just educate people but help people. That's a gift that's always been given to me."
Brent Reuer stands with students from the Minerva Cooperative School in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, during his trip to deliver school supplies to schoolchildren in February. Reuer was kidnapped as an infant during the Guatemalan Civil War, spent much of his childhood in an orphanage and was adopted by a couple in Sandpoint. This was his first time returning to his native country since his adoption.