In September 2017, one of our new students at the time, Carmen, first met with our team at JOYA, unsure about the challenges she would face as a high school junior. Soft-spoken and reserved, she was unwilling to let her struggles in math and science stop her from making her family proud by walking across the stage at her graduation.

For two years, Carmen committed to raising her grades and much more through JOYA’s programs. She surrounded herself with a team that believed in her—her mentor; tutors; SAT Prep, College Apps, and Parent Academy instructors—and committed herself to every experience JOYA had to offer—every mentoring and tutoring session, college campus visit, and so on.

As a quickly emerging leader and entrepreneur, Carmen was among our first scholars to participate in the Reagan Student Leadership Program and the Concordia University Irvine Teen Entrepreneurship Academy. Carmen graduated from El Dorado High School in 2019, and now studies Business Administration with a concentration in Entrepreneurship at Fullerton College.

More importantly, she has become an extraordinary role model for her family. Her mother, Lupe, has owned and operated a cleaning business, Lupe’s Magic Cleaning, since immigrating from Mexico nearly twenty years ago. Lupe has raised her four children on the streets of the Garnet neighborhood, and, because she has sadly seen many of her neighbors fall victim to the cycle of gang activity, has vowed to do whatever it takes to make education a priority and create a better life for her family.

Because of Carmen’s ambition and Lupe’s resilience, their entire family has merged with the heart of JOYA Scholars. Carmen’s younger brother, Francisco, is now a JOYA junior, and their older siblings, Paula and Rene, decided to volunteer with JOYA and serve as mentors to Garnet middle schoolers of their own.

I sat with Carmen’s family at her graduation. When her name was called, I noticed that she stumbled onto the stage and paused for a moment. She later told us that one of her shoes had unexpectedly caught on something and fell apart as she was making her way on stage. She had to take a moment to find her footing, but she let us know that at that point—after all the hard work and sacrifice—there was nothing that was going to stop her from walking across the stage to get her diploma.

After the ceremony, we all took photos outside the stadium. Carmen was celebrating with her friends, and I noticed that Lupe was still holding onto Carmen’s broken shoe. I asked her if I could take it from her and go find a trash can. She said no. Instead, she told me she would always keep the shoe as a reminder of how proud she was of her daughter.