Guardian Scholars mentor Valerie Wentworth, left, with Cal State San Marcos senior Sandra Ramirez at Valerie's Scripps Ranch home in February. They made homemade pizza that afternoon to celebrate Ramirez's 24th birthday.

Guardian Scholars mentor Valerie Wentworth, left, with Cal State San Marcos senior Sandra Ramirez at Valerie’s Scripps Ranch home in February. They made homemade pizza that afternoon to celebrate Ramirez’s 24th birthday. — Bill Wechter/U-T San Diego

Guardians help foster youth achieve college dreams

Mentors offer guidance, friendship to former foster children in college

By Pam Kragen.       March 10, 2014

SAN MARCOS — Sandra Ramirez knows all too well that the deck is stacked against former foster children who dream of going to college.

The 24-year-old senior at Cal State San Marcos is a rare success story in the foster care community, where less than 10 percent of former foster youth enroll in college and just 3 percent graduate.

Her brains and determination can be credited for her achievements, but she has another ace in the hole — Promises2Kids’ Guardian Scholars program, which provides scholarships, one-on-one mentoring and networking opportunities for young adults after they leave the safety net of the foster care system.

Ramirez is the oldest of six siblings who entered the foster care system 14 years ago. So far, she’s the only one to go to college.

She lived happily with a foster family in Ramona from ages 12 to 17, but when foster children turn 18, the monthly stipend provided by the county for their care ends. Ramirez didn’t want to be a burden to her foster parents, so when she graduated from high school, she moved out.

“It was very hard when I aged out,” she said. “I didn’t have much. My (foster) mom packed my clothes and I had $300 cash saved. I knew I wanted to go to college but I didn’t know how I’d do it.”

Promises2Kids, formerly known as the Child Abuse Prevention Foundation, was created in 1981 to serve foster youth. The San Diego nonprofit built the Polinsky Children’s Center (now run by the county, with the help of a $200,000 annual donation from Promises2Kids), and also operates a camp to reunite siblings separated by foster care. Guardian Scholars was added in 2001 to provide ex-foster kids a bridge to self-sufficiency.

“This program was created because we were seeing a horrible outcome for kids who grew up in foster care,” said Tonya Torosian, CEO of Promises2Kids. “We’ve had 200 children go through the program and we’ve had an 82 percent success rate of participants completing their degree. A number have earned law degrees and some have earned doctorates.”

Valerie Wentworth, left, making pizza with Sandra Ramirez, 24, at Valerie’s Scripps Ranch home. At right are Valerie’s daughters Vanessa, 14, and Sabrina, 17. — Bill Wechter/U-T San Diego

When she graduated from Ramona High School six years ago, Ramirez moved in with her birth mother but she only lasted there a month because she found it an unhealthy and unsafe environment. She then tried living a few months with her birth father, but that wasn’t a good fit, either.

Fortunately, counselors at Palomar College helped her sign up for financial aid, awarded her a scholarship and got her a part-time job on campus so she could afford her own apartment. When she transferred to Cal State San Marcos two years ago, she discovered Guardian Scholars.

Each year, Ramirez and the other 74 scholars in the program can qualify for a $3,200 annual scholarship if they keep their grades up, work part-time and take part in group networking events, Torosian said. Because demand for the program far exceeds funding, three out of every four applicants are turned away.

“It has helped me a lot,” Ramirez said of the program. “I’ve gotten a lot out of the networking, but sometimes it’s something as simple as them sending me a birthday card. I didn’t have that growing up. Just knowing that they took the time to send me a handwritten letter telling me to do something nice for my birthday had a lot of impact for me personally.”

Two years ago, Guardian Scholars added a mentoring component where the students could forge one-on-one relationships with adult professionals for both career guidance and friendship. Many of the volunteer mentors came from Qualcomm Inc., which helped create the program, as well as volunteers from Sleep Train, Ashford University and the ICW Group.

One of the first mentors to sign on was Valerie Wentworth, a director of production management for Qualcomm. The Scripps Ranch single mom said she was interested in the program because her daughters — Sabrina, 17, and Vanessa, 14 — are increasingly independent and she has “a little more bandwidth” in her schedule.

Because she has children at home, Wentworth insisted on being paired with a mature, childless, drug- and drama-free female student, as well as someone who had a goofy, outgoing personality like herself. Ramirez proved to be the perfect match.

Ramirez has gotten career guidance from Wentworth, and she has also joined the family for activities like Christmas cookie-baking, family birthday parties, beach trips, Jacuzzi soaks and backcountry hikes. This past weekend, they celebrated Ramirez’s birthday with a pizza-making party.

Although the relationship has been enriching for them both, Wentworth said she takes no credit for Ramirez’s academic success.

“The reason Sandra is successful is her own resilience and her extremely good discipline,” Wentworth said. “She’s very good at setting boundaries to protect herself from the emotional roller coaster of life. Some people might have given up, but she just keeps trying.”

Guardian Scholars mentor Valerie Wentworth, right, making pizza with Cal State San Marcos senior Sandra Ramirez, 24, at Valerie’s Scripps Ranch home in February. — Bill Wechter/U-T San Diego

Ramirez said she thinks of Wentworth, as well as her daughters, as “lifetime family and friends.”

“I can sit with her at dinner and talk and talk about anything and everything, like you would with a parent,” Ramirez said. “I view her as someone I can look up to and I can speak my mind to freely without being judged.”

Ramirez is majoring in management information systems and hopes to be a corporate computer analyst some day. Wentworth had the same minor in college and she is helping Ramirez look for internships, but she said she resists giving too much unsolicited advice. “What I mostly do is just model a lifestyle based on making good decisions,” Wentworth said. “I try to be a wise friend who is consistently there for her and who is positive.”

Mentors are required to commit their time to the scholars for one year, but Torosian said the experience has been so positive that almost all of the mentors, including Wentworth, renewed their commitments last year.

Ramirez will graduate from both Cal State San Marcos and the Guardian Scholars program in December, but Wentworth said their relationship will go on.

“I plan to keep Sandra until she’s sick of me,” she said. “My daughters look at her as a cousin and she’s part of our extended family. I am excited to have her as my young friend.”