A graduation full of inspiration
June 7, 2010
Maria Burgos is on her way to the Ivy League. Five years ago, she was selling gum on the streets of Tijuana.
Maria was only 13 at the time, but she knew this was no life for her—mired in poverty, working long hours alongside a father who’d been deported to Mexico after a string of arrests in L.A. By then, she’d already been removed from her parents and returned to them several times, starting after her first birthday.
Begging and pleading, Maria convinced her parents to let her cross the border to stay with a family friend in Los Angeles, where she was born as a legal resident and wanted to attend school again. “I knew I couldn’t control all aspects of my life,” she recalls, “but I knew I could control my education. I just went for the A’s.”
So began a rocky journey that would land Maria in six foster homes by her freshman year, when she finally found stability and success in the care of a middle school counselor and her husband. This year, Maria graduated from Pioneer High School in Whittier with a 4.02 grade point average and has been accepted to Brown University in Rhode Island. The 18-year-old says she wants be a pediatrician.
“I never felt sorry for myself,” says Maria, who was captain of the varsity cross country team and has run four L.A. Marathons. “Being in foster care was so much better than being with my parents. I didn’t see it as an obstacle. I saw it as an opportunity.”
On Tuesday night, Maria and more than a hundred other foster youth will be honored for their academic achievements and awarded thousands of dollars in scholarships during a gala at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The event, “Celebration 2010,” is now in its 21st year and is largely organized by L.A. County’s Department of Children and Family Services and United Friends of the Children, a private group that helps foster youth successfully transition into adulthood. The evening’s host will be comedian Paul Rodriguez, with actress Jada Pinkett Smith as the keynote speaker.
The young honorees are among the most extraordinary of graduates in this season of high school commencements. Still in their teens, they’ve suffered years of abuse and abandonment. They’ve bounced from one school to the next, creating gaps in their education. Too often, they’ve been told by grown-ups at home and in the classroom that they’ll never amount to much.
“They have this amazing resilience,” says Monica Bomkamp Enia, education program director for United Friends of the Children. “They go through these insane challenges and still come out on top.”
Frequently, she says, the successful students have someone in their lives—a teacher, a grandparent, a coach, a social worker—who has told them: “You can do this and I’m going to help you.” Sometimes, she says, they’re driven by nothing more than a powerful determination to prove people wrong.
“Our take,” Enia says, “is that there is no reason people should expect less from them.” She says her organization, founded by the late Nancy M. Daly, is dedicated to becoming the positive voice in the lives of foster children—and backing it up with logistical and financial support.
Forty students participating in Tuesday’s event will receive UFC scholarships of $15,000 spread across five years, along with help picking colleges and finding other funding sources. The others also will receive grants of various sizes from a variety of organizations. Of those who’ve previously participated in UFC’s college sponsorship program, more than 70% have graduated—an off-the-charts rate for foster youth.
Each student who’ll proudly stride across Disney Hall’s stunning stage has traveled a uniquely tortuous route to get there. But they all share this: a fierce determination, rooted in their difficult journeys, to build promising futures for themselves.
“Itching to go”
As a member of the debate and speech team, she became one of California’s top competitors in oratorical interpretation—taking an existing speech and recreating the effect intended by the author.
“I can say things in a speech and the audience will believe me,” she says. “They’re not seeing me as someone who was abused for nine years. They’re viewing me as someone who is doing a great job.”
For years, Cynthia kept silent about her father’s alleged abuse. “I didn’t want the family to crumble and fall away,” she says. But her secret was revealed when her stepmother discovered a detailed letter Cynthia had written about her treatment and had stashed away, thinking she might someday be brave enough to give it to someone.
With no direct evidence against Cynthia’s father, who denied the abuse allegations, no charges were filed. Still, the discovery of the letter led to Cynthia’s placement at age 16 in a Canyon Country foster home with her best friend, a former foster youth who’d been adopted by the family.
“We kept our foster license open but we weren’t intending to have another child,” says Sheri Flay, who, with her partner Victoria Bennett, has been caring for Cynthia for two years. “It was just the right thing at the right time.”
In the aftermath of all this upheaval, Cynthia says “she fell into the deepest state of depression…I put all the blame on myself when I was the victim.” She worried that she was “tainted” and that people “wouldn’t want to be with me.” Nonetheless, she says, “I wouldn’t let myself drop below a 3.0.”
And she didn’t.
Cynthia, who turns 18 on Thursday, graduated from Canyon High School with a 3.31 grade point average. In the fall, she’ll be off to California State University at Northridge, where she’ll live on campus. “I’m itching to go,” she says. “College has been my dream.”
In an essay Cynthia wrote as part of the application process for Tuesday’s event, she put any doubters on notice: “I am someone who will not back down. I will not give up.”
Since the age of 10, Alexander Deiongh has lived in foster homes stretching from Fontana to Long Beach, seven in all. He says his birth mother was “great” to him and his brother, except when she didn’t take her medication for a bi-polar condition, which was often. “When she’s not on her medication,” he says, “she’s not worried about us.”
Alexander remembers many times when police and social workers removed him and his brother from their Highland Park home after their mom vanished, leaving them to fend for themselves. Eventually, the court would reunite the family, but each time the story was the same.
The last time Alexander lived with his mother was in his sophomore year at Franklin High School. He and his brother were determined to keep her on track. “We thought we could ride it out and help her with her medication,” he says. But once again, she disappeared, this time to Las Vegas.
“We didn’t tell anyone because we didn’t want to be taken away again,” he says.
But someone did alert authorities and the boys were removed for the final time. They eventually were placed in separate homes after Alexander repeatedly complained that his brother was physically abusive. Since November, 2007, Alexander has lived in North Hollywood with a couple he says have provided him with the financial and emotional support he needed to excel.
“I’d like to say it’s all me,” the 18-year-old football player says of his success. “But it’s also the foster parents who guide you.”
In two weeks, Alexander will graduate from North Hollywood High School with a 3.65 grade point average. In the fall, he’ll be attending UCLA, focusing on math and the sciences.
He admits to being motivated by “bragging rights” because of the rough treatment he received from his brother, who was always critical of him and has not fared nearly so well. If Alexander saw him today, he says, he’d tell him off: “You criticized me the whole time and look at me and look at you!”
But that’s far from the whole of it.
“I knew that I didn’t want to spend my whole life on minimum wage jobs,” he said the other day after being fitted for a prom tuxedo. “I did not want to live up to a stereotype of what a foster kid is.”