As a child, Moisés López wanted to be an astronaut. “I used to look at the stars and say, ‘I want to go there,’” Lopez said. He grew up in El Salvador, with a father who drank too much, and would hit López and his siblings. “My dad used to say, ‘You want to be an astronaut, but there’s not enough food to eat. You’re just dreaming.’”
At 13, López embarked alone on a journey to come meet his brother in the United States, taking buses through El Salvador to Guatemala to Mexico, and finally crossing into the United States, where he was granted asylum. Since then, he has been in foster care.
On Tuesday this week, López was one of 175 graduating high school seniors on stage at Los Angeles’ famed Walt Disney Concert Hall as an honoree of Celebration 2016, the annual ceremony for foster youth who graduated high school this year with a 2.8 or higher grade point average, and who will be going on to college. Students beamed as their families, teachers, social workers and friends cheered them on, all recognizing yet another way in which these young people have overcome the odds and faced adversity undeterred.
Celebration is an annual event thrown for youth by Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), United Friends of the Children (UFC) — a nonprofit focused on providing support services to youth in foster care – Youth Development Services, L.A. County Probation Department, and the Rotary Club of Los Angeles. This year’s graduates will also receive scholarships totaling close to one million dollars to support their college experience over the next five years.
Since arriving in the U.S., López has taught himself to read and write in English, and discovered a passion for physics and math that is fitting for a future astronaut. Although now, he is leaning toward a future in robotics. He will put his new scholarship to work at Pierce College, where he plans to study mechanical engineering.
Scholarship recipients will also continue to receive support services and mentoring as they prepare for the next chapter of their young adult lives.
“What I believe keeps our young people pursuing their educational dreams and staying in college is more than money,” said Kara Allen Soldati, the new President and CEO of UFC. “It is the personal support. It’s the birthday cards, it’s the support during midterms, the two A.M. calls.”
Despite contending with the primary election and a Dodgers game, the lobby of Walt Disney Concert Hall was packed with loved ones, who stood up and cheered throughout the program.
When reflecting on the path to a high school diploma, every single speaker and graduate at Celebration highlighted their support systems. The concert hall erupted in cheers at the mention of the graduates’ social workers, teachers and families. For Jevonne*, that support came from the woman he lovingly calls Granny, his legal guardian since the fourth grade.
Jevonne will head to Cal State Fullerton in the fall, to study musical theater and business — a path he may never have found without Granny. “Before I went with her, acting was not my thing. I wanted to be a fire fighter, like a typical kid,” he said. But everything changed when she took him to his first play, and helped him pursue his new passion.
The aspiring actor maintains a loving relationship with his mom, but he suspects he would be in a different place today without the foster care system. “A lot of times we share bad stories [about foster care], but for me they’ve all been good,” he said. “It’s helped me being in foster care because it’s a place where I can express myself and be around people who love me.”
Carolyn Travis found that support in her church, which remained constant in the face of 12 different foster care placements she experienced. Despite the obstacles she encountered, and all of the people who told her she couldn’t do it, Carolyn graduated as valedictorian of her class at Marshall Fundamental School and will be starting UCLA in the fall. She anticipates she will study either photojournalism or field medicine.
KTLA 5 Morning News host Chris Schauble once again emceed the evening, alternately offering youth energizing words of wisdom and snapping selfies with them from the stage. Special remarks were given by actor Danny Trejo and leaders from Los Angeles County. However, the most powerful moments of the ceremony were delivered by the youth themselves.
Graduate Nicholas Olivares saw his lifelong dream of playing at the Disney Concert Hall come true when we was invited to sit at a grand piano in the middle of the program to play Mozart’s Rondo alla Turco. Quron M. Clarks, a 2014 alum who is on track to be the first U.S. graduate of Spain’s Institute of the Arts Barcelona, performed for the crowd, sweeping across the stage as he performed a modern dance piece.
Finally, students heard from 2008 alumna speaker Ashley Williams. Williams, who lived in 36 foster homes and attended 26 schools as a high schooler, is starting her final year at Southwestern Law School in the hopes of one day becoming a judge. Williams’ remarks highlighted an important balance, and one that weighs heavy on the shoulders of so many of the youth: the need to embrace your support system, and also rely on yourself.
She reminded youth that only 50 percent of foster youth graduate from high school, and only three percent graduate from college. Now that they have reached one of these milestones, they will need to stay diligent in their next steps to reach the next. “I refuse to be another statistic,” she said, and urged those on stage to do the same.
Martin Enriquez, Moisés’ social worker since he entered the care of DCFS, is confident as López steps into his future. “I tell him all the time, you are destined for great things,” said Enriquez. “To hear his story teaches me a lot about being motivated to be better, to be a better person, you know?”
For Moisés, coming this far from stargazing as a child feels surreal. “I mean, I’m playing with robots and computers! That’s amazing, and I never thought I’d be doing anything like this.”
*Last name withheld in the interest of privacy.