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Going from foster care to college, because someone believed in them

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United Friends of the Children has been helping foster children complete college for more than 25 years
Jamilah's story demonstrates that even troubled families have hidden strengths that we ought to respect

Jamilah Sims became a mother at 14 — just as she was entering foster care for the third time, because of her own mother's instability.

She and two sisters — the girls are triplets — have grown accustomed to packing up, moving in with strangers, leaving friends, changing schools. They lived in five different foster homes over the years.

But they're also growing accustomed to a measure of success that's absent in the typical narrative of foster system teens.

All three graduated from high school last month and are headed for college, with advice, support and financial help from United Friends of the Children, a nonprofit that's been helping foster children complete college for more than 25 years.

One sister will attend New Mexico State University to study communications. Another will begin working toward a business degree at Santa Monica City College. And Jamilah will be toting her 3-year-old son Carter to Cal State Bakersfield, where she will study to become an anesthesiologist.

The girls were among 187 high school grads from the foster care system whose hard work and good grades were celebrated last month at a ceremony at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Dozens received college scholarships from a pot that totaled more than $1 million.

The graduates' personal stories reflect parental stumbles, teenage resilience and the collective efforts of families, friends and foster parents, who helped them battle their demons, nurture their talents and endure whatever hardships they could not outrun.

One young woman spent part of her adolescence squatting in abandoned houses; she's attending Yale this fall. Another was abused by her stepfather and wound up addicted to drugs; she'll be majoring in psychology at UC Santa Cruz. A young man who never knew his father and was abandoned by his mother will be moving to Spain to study dance at the Institute of the Arts in Barcelona.

Their scholarships will pay for the sorts of things most freshmen take for granted: a suitcase for a student who has never traveled, clothes warm enough for a winter at a Snow Belt college, and, for Jamilah, college textbooks and her very first computer.

No more rushing through homework on the library computer, so she could race to day care in time to pick up her son.

::

Jamilah never imagined herself pregnant. She imagined herself in medical school, and is still determined to get there. Her toddler is more inspiration than obstacle, she said.

"He's an extra boost. You have to get up and work harder and better, to make sure his life turns out good." She's learned to discipline herself. "I've got great time-management skills," she said. "I've learned to multi-task."

She remembers feeling scared and confused when she found out she was pregnant. "I didn't tell anyone for months," she said. "I thought 'What am I doing? How am I going to finish school?' I was only in ninth grade."

School had been the primary source of stability in her life. "I've always been on the honor roll, having As and stuff," she said. Carter's birth made her "really adamant about staying on track."

When she had to miss classes at Washington Prep, her sisters collected her homework assignments so she wouldn't fall behind. Her teachers encouraged her, and her foster family showed her "what career-minded women are like."

And the mentor she was paired with through a program at her church "taught me that I didn't have to be a statistic," Jamilah said. "That I have the drive to be better in life and do better than what my mom did."

That mentor, Patricia Sheppard-Williams, had been a young mother, too. She was 16 and pregnant when a social worker told her, "You're never going to have anything. You're never going to have any money. You're never going to have a home."

The social worker was wrong. Sheppard-Williams went to college, retired from a well-paying career she enjoyed and was camping in Oregon with her grandchildren this week when I reached her on the phone.

"What I told Jamilah was what I learned," she said. "Don't let your confidence lag. You make your life as strong and powerful and wonderful as you can, and your baby will have a good life."

::

I couldn't make it to the ceremony last month. But I couldn't forget Jamilah's story.

It demonstrates that even troubled families have hidden strengths that we ought to respect. The six girls in Jamilah's family all attended college or are about to begin. Her mother was smart, Jamilah said, but hobbled by personal problems. In the midst of chaos, the daughters learned to value education and rely on one another.

It illustrates how much perspective matters. Jamilah saw her mother's life as a lesson, not a roadmap. "I don't see how people use their struggles as 'This is why I didn't make it. This is why I didn't do nothing,'" she said. "I would think you would try to do better than what your circumstances are, so you don't ever have to deal with those struggles again."

And it shows how important it is to have someone in your corner.

"These are young people with incredible drive, who have been through so much," said Polly Williams, president of United Friends of the Children, which is providing Jamilah with $3,000 a year for expenses while she's in college.

The group has helped hundreds of former foster youths graduate from college, Williams said. "And whenever we go back and talk to them about how they were able to do it, almost to a person, they say the same thing:

"Because somebody told me I could."

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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