By Luciana Chavez, Special to Merced College

Current and former foster care students in the Merced College NextUp program will tell you their guides turn themselves inside out to offer help.

The staff will tell you the students inspire their work even more.

“The overwhelming gratitude they show us is so moving,” said Dondi Lawrence, NextUp Student Support Coordinator. “The great things they accomplish don’t surprise us. They have so many talents and abilities. We’re grateful to witness their growth.”

May is National Foster Care Month. We can brag about NextUp, which launched on campus in 2018.

“There is so much support there,” sophomore Kiah Brock said. “I’ve messaged someone at night so often and seen them answer minutes later, saying, ‘We got you.’”

The California Community Colleges initiative began in 2014 and operates at 45 of 116 campuses. NextUp works to improve the 3% national college graduation rate for over 60,000 foster youth in California.

NextUp students normally enter college without a support system, so they qualify for financial grants, housing assistance, and health and child care, along with services ranging from workshops to books, meal cards and strong shoulders to lean on.

The strong shoulders are as necessary as the rest.

Art major Jorge Alexis Zelaya was 14 when a friend with a fancy Toyota pickup visited his family in El Salvador and started talking about job opportunities in the U.S.

Zelaya lived surrounded by political unrest. His father had died the year before. He saw no way to make a life. Impressed by the truck, he headed north.

“We had nothing in El Salvador,” he said. “It didn’t take much to say, ‘OK, I’ll try it.’”

Zelaya set out, but immigration officers grabbed him at the Texas border. Then 15, he spent two months in a youth facility before making it to San Francisco.

After living with a family friend in the Bay Area for 18 months, Zelaya had to go into foster care. The local agency had no placements. They sent him to the nearest place that did—Merced County.

Zelaya did well living in the Wake Forest group home in Merced, while attending El Capitan High. He moved into an apartment subsidized by Creative Alternatives during his first few years at Merced College.

But, two months before aging out of foster care at 21, Zelaya had no other place to live. He called his group home administrator Daniel Flores in a panic. Flores had wanted to adopt Zelaya years earlier. He took him into his home and, shortly thereafter, Zelaya also gained his U.S. residency.

Finally, stability.

Zelaya now has a family and tangible support at NextUp. He can transfer to Stanislaus State when he’s ready. He hopes to someday run an online business selling his digital art.

For now, Zelaya spends long hours in the NextUp office each day, chatting up Lawrence, doing homework and working as a short-term employee.

“When I’m there,” Zelaya said, “it feels like home.”

Business major Gloria Martinez found the same at NextUp after she enrolled at Merced College.

Confiding to her life coach at Aspirenet, the Merced County foster care housing agency, about how expensive her textbooks were, the coach replied, “You need NextUp.”

“Dondi called me that same day,” Martinez said.

Martinez, in foster care, twice tried to return home. She eventually put herself into foster care permanently instead. She took that drastic step to protect her baby brother.

Her parents had drug problems and moved frequently. A judge took Martinez out of her home when she was in high school. Living with an aunt didn’t work, so Martinez returned home just as her family moved to Shelter Cove, a coastal town in Humboldt County.

Her brother was 6 months old when Martinez returned and saw her father abusing him and her mother. They got a restraining order against her father, but her mother was still endangering the brother.

“I didn’t want that life for my brother,” Martinez said. “I just had to say enough is enough. I had to call [Child Protective Services]. I’m glad I did.”

Her brother was placed with a family who immediately started the adoption process. He was safe. Martinez was relieved, but wondered, “What now?”

Martinez was looking for work in Shelter Cove when she randomly reconnected with her Greeley, Colo., elementary school music teacher. Donna Turner had moved to California to run an inn with her sister Dale Bowden. They gave Martinez a job. When Martinez put herself into foster care, Bowden immediately said they’d take care of her.

“Our inside joke is that they are my fairy godmothers,” Martinez said.

Martinez has the security she craved. Now 20, she’ll transfer to Stanislaus State to do a BA in Business Administration next spring.

“Three years ago I was depressed and didn’t think I could make it in the world,” she said. “I had been listening too much to people who doubted me. But by going to therapy and succeeding in other things, I’ve learned to trust myself.”

Epiphanies are always part of NextUp student stories.

Kiah Brock, a communication and psychology major, had hers early in life. She grew up near Oakhurst, but her mother voluntarily sent her into foster care in Fresno when Brock was 11.

She had always had a fire in her belly. That fueled her when she had to start high school at 13 because the charter school she attended didn’t have a middle school. It carried her when, at 14, her probation worker wanted to take her out of the charter and enroll her in a public school.

Just months before she would complete high school, they wanted to make her start over as a freshman.

“Statistically speaking, they felt all along that I was gonna be lucky to graduate from high school,” Brock said. “But that wasn’t good enough for me. I have three children now and there was no way I was gonna be able to support anyone without being my best. Society can say whatever they want about teen moms, because I’ve always felt that I am going to make a new statistic.”

After completing high school in just 18 months, Brock enrolled at Merced College at 17 and automatically got financial help from the state. But she was too busy to meet the NextUp staff.

“And Dondi called, texted and emailed me for weeks saying, ‘Just stop by!’” Brock said. “When I finally showed up, they gave me access to every service on campus I could ever want.”

Brock, now 26, after 10 years clawing away at school, will graduate with five degrees—transfer AAs in communication, psychology and sociology as well as AAs in Psychology and Social and Behavioral Sciences. She works in the College CalWorks office and will enroll in an online BA program at Chico State in the fall.

Ironically, and until recently, she hadn’t planned on transferring. Right before an application deadline in December, NextUp counselor Rene Salazar told Brock he would feel “so disappointed” if she didn’t try.

“I was like, ‘Dang. OK, Dad!’” Brock joked. Hearing Salazar’s sentiment, “There’s no ‘not finishing’ now.”