Charlene Chhom, 14, has never had her own room. She, five siblings, her mother and grandmother share a cramped four-bedroom house in the heart of the Cambodia Town neighborhood in Long Beach.
It can be hard for her to focus sometimes in the full house, so she studies at a Starbucks or locks herself in the room she shares with her sister.
"When we talk, it's like everybody talking," she says, her blue-shellacked fingernails tapping on the family's small kitchen table. "When I'm with my mentor, it's just me and her."
Charlene and her two younger brothers are among the 113 Long Beach students who participate in programs at Operation Jump Start, a local nonprofit that helps disadvantaged and low-income youths aim for college. The organization pairs each student, most in grades eight through 12, with a college graduate who can work with them for up to five years, escorting them to campus tours and volunteer activities.
"She's like the oldest of all my siblings," Charlene said of her mentor, Renee Van Winkle, 30, who gives her school advice and tips on her least favorite subject — geometry.
Operation Jump Start also provides tutoring and information sessions on picking high school classes and college requirements, and it gives incentives for high grade-point averages.
Before joining last year, Charlene thought she might go to community college or nearby Cal State Long Beach. But after a weeklong "camp-out" in UC Irvine's dorms this spring, part of a joint program with the center, Charlene says she hopes to apply there too.
Her sister Linda was the first in her family to "go dorming" at a four-year college, as Charlene puts it, and encouraged her younger siblings to join the mentoring program. The family took up an entire table last year when they watched Linda graduate from Operation Jump Start. Charlene says she was "really proud" of her sister, but also encouraged. "If she can pass OJS, then we can all pass OJS, and we can all go to college and make it," she said.
Executive Director Jill Jones calls the nonprofit's graduation ceremony, which participants from all grade levels attend, one of the most important events of the year. "They all get a sense that they're going to be there too," she said.
Through the generosity of Times readers and a match by the McCormick Foundation, nearly $450,000 was granted to local literacy programs this year as a result of the Los Angeles Times Holiday Campaign.
The Holiday Campaign, part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund, a McCormick Foundation fund, raises contributions to support established literacy programs run by nonprofit organizations that serve low-income children, adults and families who are reading below grade levels, are at risk of illiteracy or have limited English proficiency.
Donations are tax-deductible as permitted by law and matched at 50 cents on the dollar. Donor information is not traded or published without permission. Donate online at latimes.com/donate or by calling (800) 518-3975. All gifts will receive a written acknowledgment.