Jun. 11—Hundreds of students across Kern County took part in graduation ceremonies over the past few weeks, but at the M Street Navigation Center on Friday, a different kind of celebration took place.
The cafeteria of one of Kern County's newest homeless shelters was filled with cheering onlookers as seven students graduated from Project HireUp, a six-week program from Bakersfield College and CityServe that teaches job training and life skills. Designed to prevent the recurrence of homelessness, Project HireUp gives the students the foundation they need to build a stable life.
All seven participants were either moving on to jobs or further education.
Emotions ran high on Friday.
"I'm a little overwhelmed, in a good way. It's a lot, especially after everything that has happened at the beginning of the year," said Viviana Gonzalez. "Just to see that. Oh my gosh. It turned out for the better so far. It's been awesome."
Gonzalez said a toxic and abusive relationship in which she became codependent on top of a dysfunctional family resulted in her receiving services at the Mary K Shell Mental Health Services Center. Now that she is free, she plans to take classes to become a professional welder, and hopefully open a workshop that could act as a safe haven for people struggling with codependency or other issues.
"Even just going back to school, something that you never really think that you're worthy of whenever you're feeling like that, just being able to do that, with welding of all things, it's so empowering, it's so cool," she said.
One of her fellow graduates, Joseph Escandon, said he found himself at M Street after trying to survive on the streets. After completing the course, he said he, too, hoped to be a welder, as well as an American Sign Language interpreter due to both his parents being deaf.
"I'm just very thankful for where I'm at today," he said. "I shouldn't be alive today."
For Endee Grijalva, program manager for adult education at Bakersfield College, the day also held a special significance. Many years ago, Grijalva said she found herself a homeless single mother of two children. Education offered her a path out, which she hopes to offer to other individuals facing similar situations.
On Friday, she tried hard not to cry during the ceremony.
"It's very emotional because I see myself in all of the students," she said. "This really, truly, is life-changing and it takes somebody willing to walk alongside to make it happen."
Each year, several cohorts graduate from Project HireUp, a free, noncredited program from BC. Several collaborators offer follow-up education, which can take a person from homelessness to to a job within six months.
"We know that this is just one next step in their lives and in their future and all that lies ahead for them," said Robin Robinson, community development and church engagement director at CityServe. "We believe that dreams can come true and a lot of that lies in hope, and we want to be dealers of hope."
There was plenty of hope to go around Friday, and for the seven graduates, that will likely continue far into the future.
You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.