By JoAnne Goldberg
Carlos Rodrigues was 5-years-old when he boarded a bus in Mexico with his mother and siblings. By the time he reached his destination, East Palo Alto, he had turned 6, and was reunited with a father he hadn't seen since he was 2 years old. He started first grade at Costano School, not knowing a word of English.
"There were kids making fun of me," says Carlos, recalling that day in September 2001. "But I was lucky, because there was IHAD. They helped me make friends and adjust."
IHAD is shorthand for "I Have a Dream," a national program whose Belle Haven/East Palo Alto chapter "adopted" an entire class of first-graders back in 2001. Building Futures Now, the nonprofit that runs the local chapter, made a commitment to support the students all the way through college with services that have included academic enrichment, extracurricular activities, full-time summer programming, volunteer mentors from Stanford's Graduate School of Business, and assistance with college admissions and tuition.
Today, Carlos and over 50 other IHAD seniors in high school, often referred to as Dreamers, are young adults who have graduated from local high schools. Most will be the first in their family to attend college.
Jessica Godinez became a member of the IHAD class when she was in sixth grade. She remembers the first day of school. "I was with my mom, terrified, because everyone knew everyone else."
IHAD connected her to mentors and provided her ongoing support as she entered high school, including extra help during a rocky period her junior year. "In other programs, you're just a number. IHAD is my family."
Due to a mixup at her Menlo Park high school, Jessica's academic records were not sent to her first choice college, Humboldt State University, and the school admissions office closed her file without considering her application. IHAD Program Director Tesia Johnson jumped into action, contacting both the university and Jessica's high school, and imploring them to take a look at Jessica. Tesia's perseverance worked, and Jessica will be matriculating this fall at Humboldt State, where she plans to study speech pathology.
Mikayla Handy-Mims agrees with Jessica's assessment. IHAD has kept her on track despite a host of medical and family problems that threatened to torpedo her academic career. The close relationships she's developed with program directors and other Dreamers have sustained her through her challenges, but she also credits an array of IHAD activities, including dances and field trips, for keeping her engaged and motivated.
She knows she wants to devote her life to helping others, and will be attending Cal State Northridge with an eye toward a career in nursing.
For Karina Naranjo, a journey halfway around the world last summer resulted in transformational insights. Through the Experiment in International Living, she traveled to Mongolia, where she stayed with a host family in a remote yurt and killed a goat for sustenance.
It was her first trip abroad, and being away from familiar surroundings cemented the importance of family. Spending time with her business school mentors clarified her career goals: "My mentors were so enthusiastic about all the skills they were learning at school, and that helped me understand how I can pull all my interests together."
She will be studying business at Sonoma State, with a long-term goal of opening a nonprofit to help impoverished seniors. Meanwhile, she volunteers at Lytton Gardens, serving as a companion to two Alzheimer patients whose families rarely come visit them.
"I'm the role model for my younger siblings," she says. "They love to tell their friends: 'That's my older sister. And she's going to college.'"
Carlos also has a heavy commitment to community service. A soccer player at Eastside College Prep, he has coached children in recreational leagues for a couple of years, helped at the local Boys & Girls clubhouse, and tutored students.
He informally evangelizes among his apartment neighbors. "There are so many high school kids there who don't care about school," he says. "They don't have anyone who supports them, and they need more motivation. They don't see the bigger picture. Maybe they've been put down too much?"
Carlos wonders if he might have followed a similar path without the encouragement he received from the IHAD program staff and the mentors. "It was inculcated in us that we were going to college. It was our eventual goal, and we knew why we were working toward it."
Fascinated by science and math, Carlos spent the summer after his sophomore year at a NASA program. Studying astronomy, building rockets, and programming robots steered him toward a path in engineering.
When it came time to decide where to attend college, he looked for an institution that would enable him to study engineering while obtaining a well-rounded education. He applied to 14 colleges and was accepted almost everywhere, ultimately deciding to attend Pomona College in Claremont, California.
Pomona is known for its rigorous academic program, but Carlos is ready for the challenge. "IHAD set us up to be prepared," he says. "To help us take advantage of opportunities and keep us engaged with learning."
Visit buildingfuturesnow.org for more information on Building Futures Now and its programs for underserved students in Belle Haven and East Palo Alto.