November 11, 2013
EAGLE COUNTY — Guardian Scholars change lives. Those lives change other lives and the world improves.
It's not complicated, but it's not easy either.
The Guardian Scholars program helps disadvantaged youth graduate college.
The students come from what we'll call "challenging" backgrounds. Some have parents, some don't. Some are homeless; many are from foster homes.
None had the financial resources and emotional support for college.
Now they do.
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"Some of them have astounding stories," said Ron Davis, who founded the program in 1998 at Cal State Fullerton.
Jenni Adams spent most of her years in high school watching cancer take her mother, Terri, by inches. Then, as she traveled the country for a few weeks attending funerals and scattering Terri's ashes in keeping with her mother's wishes, her boss decided Jenni had been off the job for too long and fired her.
Abby Houghton was sexually abused by some of the older men in her extended family. One fled the country and the other is in jail. She and her mother were in the courtroom for the trial and sentencing.
"I felt like that gave me closure," she said.
Theirs are among the dozens of local Guardian Scholars stories, kids who have been delinquent, abandoned, neglected, physically, sexually and/or emotionally abused, whose lives have hovered near the poverty line.
The stories are different, but they have one thing in common — uncommon resilience.
Adams is at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, studying early childhood education and dance. She wants to live abroad.
Houghton's story has a happy ending, as do many Guardian Scholar stories.
During her senior year at Battle Mountain High School she was applying for scholarships, doing interviews and worrying about what was next in her life.
Ron Davis and Suzie Davis (not related) wanted to meet with her after one of those interview sessions. Ron is Perrier's former corporate chief and doesn't waste time.
"You're smart enough to know this isn't an interview. It's an offer," Ron told Abby.
Without a Guardian Scholarship she might have been able to go to the local community college, or maybe not. Now she's a freshman at Colorado Mesa University studying criminal justice and knocking down straight A's.
She wants to go into law enforcement, specializing in sexual assault investigations. The irony is not lost on her, she said.
In Colorado, Guardian Scholars has partnered with Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, and most of the state's Guardian Scholars go there.
"We're more than a scholarship. We're a family making dreams come true," Davis said.
Most of these kids don't have much family support, and support is the program's foundation, Davis said. Guardian scholars are surrounded and fussed over by what the students call Guardian's Angels, 19 families who support an individual student.
"With these kids, it isn't whether they're going to have an issue. They are. It's how they're going to deal with it when they do," Davis said.
The graduation rate is more than 80 percent for the kids who are selected.
The New York Times reports that at the other end of that spectrum, a 2010 University of Chicago study found that only 6 percent of former foster youths had earned a two- or four-year degree by age 24. Those not in college may be in jail; 34 percent who had left foster care at age 17 or 18 reported being arrested by age 19.
Guardian Scholars don't roll like that.
"Their success rate is incredible. I've never seen that kind of success in the population they work with," said Tim Foster, president of Colorado Mesa University. "They go through the selection process and then they support the students not just financially, and that's a huge part of this, but they support them intangibly and morally, all the time."
Right now, there are 11 Guardian Scholars in the program. The plan is to graduate six-eight a year and bring a new crop of kids into the program to replace them.
"We're trying to find these diamonds in the rough," Davis said.
They have no overhead. Everything goes to the scholars, Davis said.
"We have so many people and so many success stories in so many places," Davis said.
Success begets success
The valley's first Guardian Scholars began graduating college a few years back. Erik Garcia graduated from Colorado Mesa University and Karen Mendoza from University of Colorado at Boulder. The first, Josie Johns, graduated from Columbia University in New York City.
"During my first year at Columbia University, I doubted myself and my right to be there," Johns said. "I said 'I can't,' but my Guardian Scholar family helped me realize that I could — and I did."
She grabbed a job with the National Basketball Association when she finished college and is now working in San Francisco.
Garcia's goal was always to go to college, but the program made it possible.
"I tried harder in school because I didn't want to let them down," Garcia said. "I want to be able to support my family like they supported me."
Mendoza is the oldest of four girls and was the first in her family to graduate college, also Columbia University.
Justine Henderson had been on her own since her father left when she was 13. She graduated from Eagle Valley High School and studied at the University of Denver.
Henderson says she lived outside society and was not willing to ask for help; she was embarrassed about being homeless and tried to hide it. Kids from dysfunctional families often turn to alcohol or drugs. She didn't go down that road.
"I hope to raise awareness and offer support to teenagers who are most likely not going to get adopted, but still need some sense of family and support," Henderson said. "These kids are often overlooked and fall through society's cracks. I want to be the person who changes this, and receiving the Guardian Scholarship will help me do it."
About Guardian Scholars
The money is provided through the scholarship program and a combination of federal and state grants.
Students have to earn a 3.0 grade point average, take dual enrollment college classes and come from a low income background. They have to write essays about the obstacles they've faced and how they've overcome them and go through a battery of interviews.
"My experience is that the success of efforts to help people is directly tied to the commitment and passion of the people trying to do the helping," Foster said.
It's hard, but every May when bands play Pomp and Circumstance and the Guardian Scholars graduate college, everyone knows it's worth it.
"Every May we have many students who complete one dream, graduation with bachelor's or master's degrees by staying away from what might have been and overcoming big obstacles in their journey," Davis said. "There are no boring dreams, just new adventures to explore, people to serve and mountains to climb."
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vail daily.com.