When she entered high school, Destinee Ballesteros was a straight-A student.
Since she was very young, Destinee’s mother had stressed that education should be her top priority—that education could free her from the financial struggles they faced. Destinee was accepted into the competitive magnet program at AV Soar High School, located right on the Antelope Valley College campus in Los Angeles County, where she could challenge herself with college classes.
But during those high school years, her mother began using methamphetamines, which made her hallucinate, Destinee explained in a recent interview. Destinee’s mother would take her and her brother away from their home to escape from “unsafe people.”
“Even though we had a house, she thought it was unsafe,” Destinee said. “So we would bounce from hotels to shelters.” Destinee started missing school because she had no way to get there, and because caring for her younger brother became her top priority.
After a hotel clerk called the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), a social worker determined that the two siblings had been neglected. Destinee and her brother entered foster care, and Destinee was transferred to a different school. There, during her junior year, she got her first F.
“It [getting an F] was really hard,” Destinee said. “It really broke my heart, but then again, I realized that sometimes you’ve got to fail in order to appreciate the success.”
Destinee and 172 of her peers in Los Angeles County did not let the adverse experiences that led them into the foster care system stop them from performing well in school, graduating, and advancing to higher education. On June 18, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, local organizations celebrated these students’ success stories during Celebration 2015.
All the students graduated from high school this year with a 2.8 grade point average or higher, and all are heading to college or a vocational school.
This annual event, now in its 26th year, is a collaboration among the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, DCFS, the Los Angeles County Probation Department, the Rotary Club of Los Angeles, the Teague Family Foundation and United Friends of the Children.
The celebration featured a speech from Marina Zamora, a former foster youth who attended the same event when she graduated high school in 2009. Zamora is now a college graduate working in accounting. The event also included musical performances and a speech by former American Idol finalist Jacob Lusk, a Compton, Calif., native whose mother is a social worker for DCFS.
“If you keep going even when it goes bad, you’ll make it,” Lusk said to the group of graduates, which included aspiring judges, psychologists, doctors, criminologists and youth advocates.
Research on the academic performances of foster youth shows that these young people beat the odds.
The Invisible Achievement Gap, a two-part study sponsored by the Stuart Foundation, found that foster youth had a high-school graduation rate of 58 percent, “the lowest rate among all at-risk student groups.”
Foster youth are also four times more likely to transfer schools than youth in the general public, according to the study.
“The number one obstacle is moving from one school to another as they move from one foster home to another,” said Donna Groman, a judge for the Superior Court of Los Angeles County.
Groman, the supervising judge at 23 juvenile delinquency courts in Los Angeles County, said that foster youth often suffer from traumatic experiences, which can cause depression and irritability, resulting in behavioral issues. Groman is involved with Keeping Kids in School, an effort to find ways to limit suspensions and other kinds of discipline correlated with school dropouts and involvement in the juvenile justice system.
The Invisible Achievement Gap concludes that despite being at a disadvantage in their education, foster youth can be “amazingly resilient, and when they receive adequate academic and social supports they can persist and succeed in school.”
Those are the stories of the 172 students who were recognized at Disney Hall—stories of resilience and achievement.
Destinee now lives with her uncle, and her younger brother lives with Destinee’s longtime soccer coach, while their mother is still trying to recover, Destinee said.
Once reluctant to share her story, Destinee said she has now accepted it. “It’s your story, not baggage,” she said. “I used to think it was baggage. I used to think, why did this happen to me? But I’m unique. It makes me stand out.”
Destinee got straight A’s again as a senior, while serving in several student groups and volunteering at a domestic violence shelter.
In the fall, Destinee will begin her studies at California Lutheran University in the San Fernando Valley as a political science major and economics minor.
After that, she plans to attend law school, work as an attorney, and become a judge. She dreams of rising to the pinnacle of the law field.
“I want to work my way up the courts and be a Supreme Court justice,” Destinee said.
“Chief justice,” she added.