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Foster youths forge a proud path to success

Adversity doesn't hinder 150 high school seniors recognized for achieving their academic goals as they transition to new lives.

June 08, 2007|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

Practically all of Timothy Legere's life has been about defying expectations.

A foster child since he was 13 months old, Legere is a smart, well-adjusted, college-bound, straight-A student who says his life holds a lesson not only for other youths like him but also for adults who write off such children and their chances of success.

"There are all these stereotypes about kids in the foster-care system, that we'll never make it to university, that we're not smart people, that we'll end up in jail, but you don't have to be that, you can be right up there with the best of them," said Legere, 18, who is graduating this month from Martin Luther King High School in Riverside.

Legere and about 150 other foster youths stepped proudly onto the stage of the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Wednesday evening to be recognized for their academic achievement in a ceremony that marked not only their graduation from high school but their transition to new, independent lives.

The students, who will attend colleges, universities and vocational schools across the nation, received more than $675,000 in scholarships as well as stipends to purchase business attire for interviews.

At Celebration '07, which was sponsored by Los Angeles County and several nonprofits and was attended by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other dignitaries, much was made of the adversity faced by the foster youths.

"Every one of you has seen things most kids shouldn't have to see and have had to overcome obstacles that most kids shouldn't even have to think about," said Villaraigosa, who told the youths that his mother was a foster child.

Nationally each year, about 20,000 teens "age out" of the foster care system when they turn 18. Although slightly more than half of those youths earn a high school diploma, only about 5% attend college and more than 25% end up homeless after exiting the system, according to the U.S. Census and other government data. About 30% of such youths suffer severe emotional, behavioral or developmental problems, those sources say.

The message from Legere and others, though, was of resilience and that anything is possible.

Alain Datcher, 17, is thankful his older sister, Angela Giles, rescued him and three other siblings after the family spent years in a motel off Slauson Avenue in South Los Angeles.

The children lived among drug dealers and prostitutes with their troubled parents until they were placed in foster care, Datcher said.

Once Giles, 36, became established, she became guardian to her siblings and welcomed them into her own home, which was already full with three children and a husband, said Datcher, who is graduating from Downtown Magnets High School in Los Angeles. He will attend Biola University.

"I always had a feeling in my gut that there had to be more in this life than me growing up and being a gangster or selling drugs," Datcher said. "When I'd feel done or depleted, a teacher would say something good about me or I'd see someone succeed, and I always knew my sister was there for me. I would think, 'If they care that much, I know I can do it.' "

Maggie Lin, 18, was born in Taiwan, where her father was murdered by a street gang and her mother's boyfriend physically abused her and her younger sister. Eventually, Lin's grandmother fled with the girls and brought them to the United States, she said. But they were then placed in foster care after being abused by an uncle.

Lin lived in five different foster homes before she was taken in by a single mom with three other children who told her that she was special and that she could achieve anything she desired. Lin was enrolled in the private Pacific Hills High School in Los Angeles, where she was student body president for the year. She will attend Dartmouth College.

"I think God does everything for a reason," Lin said. "Being a foster child was hard, but now I'm going to college."

Patricia S. Ploehn, director of Los Angeles County's Department of Children and Family Services, acknowledged that the road to college for these students had not been easy.

"They have faced so many difficulties, but the ones who have made it have focused goals," she said. An estimated 30,000 children are in the county's foster care system. About 1,800 of them age out of the system each year.

Ploehn said that increased attention was being given to the plight of older foster youths through initiatives such as the county's federally funded Independent Living Program, which gives aid for food assistance, apartment move-in costs, auto insurance, life skills and vocational training for youths up to 21 years old.

The county also operates a transitional housing program for young adults aged 18 to 21 in collaboration with the nonprofit United Friends of the Children, which provided 30 of the foster youths that attended Wednesday's celebration -- including Datcher, Legere and Lin -- with 5-year college scholarships of $15,000.

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