Dream BIG Graduation Caps Major Milestone for Foster Youth

June 4, 2019
Ryan Imondi

Sean Anders, the writer and director of last year’s hit film Instant Family, addressed an audience of high school seniors dressed in matching maroon gowns at Children’s Institute’s third annual Dream BIG Graduation last Friday. At the end of each school year, graduation scenes like this play out across Los Angeles, celebrating young people marking this important milestone on the path to adulthood. What’s different about the group listening to Anders is that every single graduate was earning their diploma while in foster care.

Anders, who created Instant Family after he and his wife Elizabeth adopted three siblings from the foster care system, understands the challenges and remarkable achievement of the 107 graduates. Nationally, youth growing up in foster care are three times likelier than their peers to drop out of high school, fewer than 13 percent will attend college and only 3 percent will earn a college degree. By contrast, every student participating in the 2019 Dream BIG Graduation was heading off to college in the fall.

“The truth is you have a lot of mountains ahead of you to climb, but you have already climbed incredible mountains to be where you are today,” Anders said. “You have already proven so much.”

CII foster youth honored at graduation
Jessica Chandler, who is featured in the HBO documentary Foster, addressed audience at the 2019 Dream BIG Graduation.

This year’s Dream Big Graduation was full of such affirmations from foster youth advocates like Jessica Chandler, an LA County social worker and former foster youth who was recently featured in the HBO documentary Foster, joined Anders in celebrating the Dream BIG Graduates. Other speakers included former foster youth Sandra, currently a student at Pasadena City College, and Candi Marie and Maraide Green who worked with Anders on Instant Family.

At the end of the ceremony CII’s Board Chair Paul Kanin presented the graduates with a fully loaded dorm kit to ensure the students begin their college journey in style. The rolling suitcases filled with bedding and other supplies were provided by Random Act Funding, founded by Susan and Robert Downey Jr, and CII’s support group The CHIPS, who also sponsored the event. The evening concluded with a celebratory BBQ dinner catered by Donny Joubert of the Watts Gang Task Force.

I hope you all will come back here and have the opportunity to show people what you are capable of.

Jessica Chandler, DCFS Social Worker and Foster Youth Advocate

Each graduate at Dream BIG participates in CII’s Individualized Transition Skills Program (ITSP)which supports academic and professional success for teens and young adults who are aging out of foster care.

Due to instability and a lack of support, youth aging out of foster care are far likelier to be chronically unemployed with almost 40 percent experiencing homelessness within 18 months of leaving the system. Yet this year’s Dream BIG Graduation boasted a 94 percent graduation rate for youth in CII’s program. Each plan to attend a variety of colleges and universities next fall that include UCLA, USC and UC Berkeley.

Sean Anders sits in the audience before speaking at CII's 2019 Dream BIG Graduation
Sean Anders (center left) sits with Candi Marie (center) and Maraide Green before addressing the audience.

ITSP Supervisor Julio Cruz said the Dream BIG Graduation serves as a reminder that youth in foster care can accomplish their goals when they receive proper support and guidance. Cruz said youth often fall behind academically in the foster care system because they move homes and schools frequently. It’s not uncommon for a foster youth to move between four different schools in a single year, which sets them up for failure. For those who do graduate high school without the support of ITSP, they receive little guidance on navigating the complexities of the college admission process or accessing financial aid.

When youth enter ITSP, they are behind in school and usually at risk of dropping out. They are assigned a counselor who serves as their personal advocate, partners with DCFS social workers to limit moves between schools and foster homes, and works with school officials to make sure all previous academic credits are counted. Counselors provide individualized support such as helping youth get a driver’s license or reviewing transcripts to determine the right course selection to graduate. As the youth get closers to finishing high school, ITSP counselors guide them through the process of college applications, financial aid and freshman housing.

The truth is you have a lot of mountains ahead of you to climb, but you have already climbed incredible mountains to be where you are today. You have already proven so much.

Sean Anders, Creator of the 2018 film Instant Family

Broadly, Cruz said the program emphasizes a culture where graduating high school and attending college is seen as achievable. He said the Dream BIG Graduation is the perfect example of this culture where younger youth in the program attend and see how many kids in the 2019 class were able to do it.

“We help show them that being a high school graduate and attending college is possible,” Cruz said. “We take them on college tours and have current students meet with older youth who have graduated.”

Sandra, a sophomore at Pasadena City College and 2017 Dream BIG Graduation alumnus, spoke at this year’s ceremony and credited ITSP for where she is today. She was on the verge of dropping out of high school after entering foster care mid-way through her sophomore year. At the time, Sandra said she felt isolated and alone before her ITSP counselor helped turn things around.

The 2019 Dream BIG Graduate applaud during the ceremony.

“I didn’t have anyone to help me with applying to school or jobs,” she said. “I would never have got this far without CII’s program.”

Jada, a 2019 Dream BIG graduate attending USC next year, said she was proud of her own accomplishments, but more importantly saw her experience as an opportunity to inspire others. USC ranks as the 22nd best undergraduate university in the country according to US News Best College Rankings. Jada said foster youth have a tendency to put a ceiling on their own potential when in fact they have the ability to accomplish a lot.

“It’s always a constant battle with ourselves,” she said. “It can be hard to cope with what we’ve experienced, but one of our major focuses should be on attending college and building our own personal support systems where we can succeed.”

It can be hard to cope with what we’ve experienced, but one of our major focuses should be on attending college and building our own personal support systems where we can succeed.

Jada, 2019 Dream BIG Graduate attending USC in the fall

Many of the youth participating in this year’s Dream BIG Graduation were first generation graduates in their own families. With the average college graduate expected to earn an average salary of $44,000 (compared to $25,000 for those without a high school diploma), Jada said it has never been more important to hold a college degree as a way of breaking the cycle of generational poverty. She said college isn’t only a pathway to higher earnings but it also offers foster youth a chance to enrich their lives by discovering what they are passionate about both academically and professionally.

Jessica Chandler, the social worker for the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services who was featured in the HBO documentary Foster, spoke to the graduates about her own doubts earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in social work after she grew up in foster care. Chandler told them that they have the ability to earn degrees and be successful regardless of the path they took to get there.

Jada, a 2019 Dream BIG Graduate, sees her story as an inspiration to other foster youth as she plans on attending USC next year.

“It doesn’t matter what you had to overcome or how close you were to not being here today, because you all made it,” she said. “I hope you all will come back here and have the opportunity to show people what you are capable of.”

Nathan, a 2019 Dream BIG graduate attending El Camino College this fall was ready to get started on his own college career and eventually earn a degree, but said being able to rely on ITSP will make a huge difference during his freshman year. While he has appreciated the extra guidance on applying to things like financial aid, he said having people he can call regardless of what is happening in his life will be the most important resource.

“It’s nice to have someone I can rely on whenever questions comes up,” he said. “And I know they will be checking in to make sure I’m not slacking, because everyone needs someone to keep you on track.”