Imperial County foster youth graduates take next step in journey

Lucero Tirado, a graduate of San Diego State University, receives her certificate and gifts from Project ACE Director Luis Torres.

HEBER – For some students, it can be difficult to get through high school and even tougher to graduate from college. And this journey is inherently more difficult for foster youth who often bounce between homes and whose lives lack stability. In Imperial County, foster kids who succeed through their educational goals are honored by the people who help them navigate their nontraditional journeys.

The Imperial Valley Regional Occupation Program (IVROP) held its 12th annual Foster Youth graduation ceremony Friday at the Twin Dragon Restaurant in Heber to recognize both current and former foster youths who achieved either high school or college graduation this year.

According to Project ACE (Accessing Careers through Education) Director Luis Torres, IVROP has sponsored this ceremony for 12 years to honor foster youth who prevailed and made it to the end of a journey wherein the statistics were stacked against them.

Project ACE provides services such as life skills training, academic and vocational counseling, job readiness, and self-esteem activities that help prepare kids in the foster system for the world and allows them to transition into adulthood — not just through high school, but into college as well.

“What we’re doing with this event is congratulating everyone for their success,” said Torres. “We’ve always recognized foster youth for overcoming their obstacles, graduating, and hopefully moving on to the next level.”

Project ACE honored 13 high school graduates and six college graduates at the ceremony with certificates, bundles of gifts, and lunch.

Victor Badnea, one of the high school graduates, said it was hard to finish with family issues going on, but he focused on his work and pulled through. He said he has plans to enroll in Imperial Valley College with hopes of becoming a physical education teacher in the future.

“It affected me, but I just had to overcome it,” said Badnea of his family situation. “You’ve just got to pull through. How else are you going to get through life?”

For college graduates, the road is even more difficult. Ashly Lytle, one of the IVC graduates, said she had to work two jobs while raising three children on top of her school work, and she couldn’t have done it without help from Project ACE.

“They give you all the tools, you just have to go for it,” said Lytle, who is transferring to San Diego State University in the fall.

Project ACE works in conjunction with Imperial County Social Services. Avery Dees, current acting director of county Social Services, and Claudia De Leon, the new director of Social Services, said they were just as proud as any parent would be.

“They’re our kids,” said Dees. “We’re just as excited for them as anyone would be.”

De Leon is now acting head of Social Services as of Friday, and comes to the position from Child and Family services. She said she was happy to be part of the ceremony and looking forward to working with the foster youth of the Valley.

There are about 45 to 50 foster cases in the 18-21 years of age range who are just beginning to enter adulthood, according to Dees. Overall, Imperial County has about 300 cases of foster children.

Statistics for Imperial County of the number of foster youth who graduate high school is at 50 percent, while college graduate statistics are even lower at 5 percent. Locally, the Imperial Valley graduation rate is 85 percent, according to Torres, which is better than the national rate.

Dees recalled one year when at least 80 percent of foster youth graduated from college in the Imperial Valley.