The following story first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News by Mark Emmons. The photo was taken by Dai Sugano.
Whenever Molly Ganoza talks about her time in foster care, she readies herself for the curious looks and the strange questions. How did you end up there? Were you in a gang? C'mon, what did you do?
"They think it's like juvenile hall or something," said Ganoza, 18. "They don't understand what it means."
For her, it meant being pulled from an unsafe home environment and spending her final years of high school as a dependent of the court. Ultimately, it's a success story of resiliency and perseverance because today she is bucking the sadly long odds that most foster care kids face as they emerge as young adults.
She is a full-time student at De Anza College, has a job, volunteers her time to make life easier for other foster kids and has the goal of becoming an occupational therapist. But while Ganoza has worked hard to reach this place, she is the first to say she didn't do it alone. Playing a key role has been Midori Adams, a mentor with the nonprofit Child Advocates of Silicon Valley.
"Foster kids just never know what to expect," Ganoza said. "You wake up in a group home and then you might get a placement into a foster home. There's just no stability in your life, and there's nobody there to help you. But then Midori was there for me."
Ganoza is a deep thinker who answers questions in a passionate, stream-of-consciousness torrent. But turn the conversation to her upbringing, and the words slow and the pain becomes evident on her face. Ganoza lived with her mother, older sister, grandparents and uncle in South San Jose. But in truth she was mostly on her own as her mom dealt with depression and addiction issues.
Ganoza would be awake at all hours, watching cartoons. Attending class wasn't a priority. "I guess the best way to explain it is I really didn't have any help growing up," she said. "There wasn't anyone around I could depend on."
The crisis point came at age 16, when she became ill with a mysterious ailment that might have been anxiety or an ulcer -- it's still unclear. She lost an alarming amount of weight, slipped into depression herself and missed even more school.
Ganoza was placed in a temporary children's shelter and then moved into a group home. Her father, whom she had not seen in five years, re-entered the picture and the hope was for him to take Ganoza after he completed a drug-and-and-alcohol program. But those hopes were crushed when he died of an overdose about a month after leaving rehab.
"I grew up from that experience," Ganoza said. "I realized that I had to mature. It was time for me to step it up and get serious about life." She regained her health and the previously indifferent student began pulling A's and B's and even started tutoring others.
Ganoza went to live with an aunt and uncle, and put herself on track to graduate from Morgan Hill's Sobrato High School. The statistics paint a bleak picture for foster kids. Studies have shown that about 46 percent drop out of high school without a degree and only 10 percent ever enroll in college. Within two years of leaving foster care, 25 percent also are incarcerated.
But Child Advocates of Silicon Valley provides a lifeline. This year, the agency will serve 780 foster kids by matching them with court-appointed volunteers.
"We see a lot of children who had a tough life, and many of them just need a little support," said Executive Director Karen Scussel. "We're not a parent, but we are a coach and counselor to help a child stay on the right course."
Adams, a native of Japan who moved to the Bay Area nearly 30 years ago, gradually earned Ganoza's trust as they talked about how she could turn her dream of attending college into a reality. They looked into local junior colleges, applied for scholarships and visited an open house at De Anza. Other times, they would just go out for coffee and talk. Adams became the caring adult missing from Ganoza's life.
"I had a tough childhood myself, and I really wish I had some mentor I could have talked to," said Adams, who has helped several other foster kids. "I'm sure there were many times when Molly cried herself to sleep because there was no one there for her. But Molly doesn't dwell on the past. She's focused on the future and how she can improve herself."
Ganoza is also assisting others with her work at the California Youth Connection, a nonprofit designed to improve foster care through legislative and policy changes. "When there are issues in a family, it can become a cycle," Ganoza said. "Kids endure these situations and don't know how to turn it around. It overcomes them. But Midori has been there to give me a guiding hand."
She said that, by the way, with a beaming smile. Footnote: Today, Molly attends Gavilan College. She is now a mother of a 9-month old baby girl and is planning to transfer to San Jose State University in the next year. She and Midori remain very close.