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Project Graduate marks a decade helping foster youth turn diplomas to dreams

The program has helped 36 at-risk students achieve graduation and go to colleges and trade schools 

RIVERSIDE COUNTY, Calif.— Nevaeh Hall’s first 18 years haven’t been easy. She entered Riverside County foster care at age 6 and moved in and out of placements, including group homes. High school graduation seemed out of her reach.

This week, Hall was among five at-risk foster youth in Riverside County who celebrated their high school graduation, applauded by judges, social workers and the attorney-mentors who helped them achieve their goals.  Statewide, only about half of all foster youth graduate from high school, less often than any other student population.

Hall and the other four youth were supported by Project Graduate, a network of Riverside County judges, attorneys, social workers, and community advocates who help some of the highest-risk youth in foster care change the trajectory of their lives through advocacy and mentorship.

“We have learned from our students how hard it is for them to envision a path to graduating from high school,” said Brian Unitt, a Riverside attorney who has chaired the Project Graduate steering committee for the past ten years. Unitt is confident that incoming chair, Deputy County Counsel Alexandra Fong, will guide the program toward expansion to better support students countywide.

Founded in 2011, Project Graduate helps foster youth in the courts decrease their risk of homelessness, incarceration, sexual exploitation, and unemployment. During its first decade, 36 youth in the program have completed high school and gone on to a community college, four-year university, or trade school. 

“Project Graduate helps change that perception about what is possible for themselves. They begin to believe in themselves and their futures,” Unitt said. “We help them see how they can turn their diplomas into a plan to achieve their dreams.”
                                                               
Hall, the graduate, said her mentors encouraged her to stay the course and pursue her diploma. She is planning to attend cosmetology school. “I had to graduate and wanted to graduate,” said Hall.
                
Participating youth are sponsored by the Department of Public Social Services (DPSS), Superior Court, Juvenile Defense Panel, Office of County Counsel, and the Riverside County Bar Association. Each youth receives a court-appointed mentor that are often local attorneys.

At the luncheon, the graduates received commemorations and a laptop. Each received a cash gift totaling the number of incentive points earned throughout the program.

Sayori Baldwin, assistant county executive officer of Human Services and director of DPSS, applauded the graduates and agency partners that make Project Graduate possible.

“I am thrilled this is the tenth year in which Project Graduate has taken place,” said Baldwin. “We congratulate the graduates and those who have traveled with them throughout their journey. Mentorship matters.”

To find out more about Project Graduate, please visit  https://riversidecountybar.com/foundation/project-graduate or call (951) 682-1015