On June 4, 2020, JCCA held a virtual graduation celebration for all of the foster youth in our care. Ron Richter, CEO of JCCA began the ceremony with words of encouragement and pride.
“We are proud of our graduates every year,” he said. “Graduating is an incredibly important milestone for anyone. It is a celebration of years of hard work and determination. But this year is unique – you are graduating in the middle of a pandemic! This is nothing short of extraordinary.”
JCCA youth were also encouraged and inspired directly by the two keynote speakers, social worker Latasha Forteau, and attorney Jamaal Lesane. Both Latasha and Jamaal spoke directly about the challenges they faced growing up.
Latasha Forteau is not unlike many of the youth in JCCA’s care. She was orphaned at 15. She and her younger brother were placed in kinship care with an elderly aunt. The experience was painful and traumatic. She coped by being “the teacher’s pet,” she admits. But school was more than an outlet for her feelings, it was a path forward towards better things, like her undergraduate experience at SUNY Binghamton, where she learned a lot and made friends that she now considers family.
She was motivated and supported along the way by her “board of trustees,” a group of smart, multidisciplined group of mentors and friends. She was also motivated by a social worker that assured Latasha she would not be left behind.
Jamaal, though not a former foster youth, faced many of the same challenges as JCCA youth. “When I was growing up in Brooklyn, [my family] didn’t have much,” he said. “I had my mom, my basketball [and] that’s it.”
Jamaal was raised by a single parent and lived in an area of Brooklyn plagued by systemic racism and neglect. But the struggles in his past, and in the graduates past, he believes “are badges of honor [that show] what you can accomplish, and what you’ve already accomplished.” He firmly believes that by working hard and earning their diploma JCCA graduates have “earned to right to think big.”
A young woman from the UAC program, and youth speaker, agrees. “I want to congratulate us for [what] we have overcome to graduate high school and college during this epidemic,” she smiled. JCCA graduates have done more than succeed during a pandemic, they have succeeded despite the many other obstacles placed in front of them. “Participate in the politics that most of the time don’t consider us,” she reminded them. Lastly, she said “let’s be kind to ourselves, and take it day by day.”
Another youth speaker, a young man from the UAC program, was optimistic about the future of all the graduates, “wherever you go, you will do great things,” he assured them. With a small smile, he closed his speech with a reminder, “Keep up the work you are doing. Continue with determination.”
Based on the screams and claps of friends and families when graduates’ names were read, all of them were on their way to having their own “board of trustees.” Hopefully, they were already thinking big, and feeling proud of all they have overcome.