Thursday, March 29, 2007

Foster care alumna, full-time Senate fellow helps current foster children succeed

Photo of September Hargrove from Sacramento Bee

UC grad's life inspires her to excel, aid others
The former foster child backs reform, counsels at-risk teens.
Sanchez, Edgar, Sacramento Bee, March 29, 2007.


Mar. 22--If September Hargrove had her way, all foster youths would be guaranteed housing and a good job or admission to college when they leave foster care at 18.

"It's scary to know that when you turn 18, you will be forced out and be on your own," the 24-year-old Oak Park resident said last week. "I think we don't do enough to prepare foster youth to make this transition."

A former foster child, Hargrove overcame obstacles to graduate from Grant High School and the University of California, Berkeley, with a bachelor's degree in ethnic studies.

Today she is a part-time counselor for at-risk girls -- some of them foster children -- in the Sacramento Children's Home.

As a full-time Senate fellow, she's also an aide to Sen. Elaine Alquist, D-Santa Clara, at the state Capitol, a job that allows Hargrove to see firsthand how laws are drafted.

She has indeed come a long way.

Born in San Jose to a drug-addicted mother, Hargrove lived in Fresno, Stockton and other Central Valley cities as she and her five younger brothers were growing up.

"My father and mother were only together for a few months," Hargrove said. "My father and I don't really have a relationship. He has never lived with me."

In 1997, after the family relocated to Sacramento, Hargrove, then 13, moved out of her mother's house to live with a classmate's family that adopted her as a foster daughter.

For the first time, Hargrove said, she went to school daily without being absent for weeks at a time, as when she had to care for her mother "while she dealt with the challenges of her addiction."

"In the beginning, life in foster care was great," Hargrove said. "For once I had stability and was excelling in school."

After graduating from Sutter Middle School in 1998, Hargrove and her foster sister attended Grant High School, where Hargrove became a leader in student government.

According to Hargrove, her foster sister was interested in sports, not academics -- a dynamic her foster parents resented.

"My foster parents would give me a hard time about their daughter not being involved academically," Hargrove said. "The foster care situation didn't work out. I ended up moving out the middle of my senior year."

Taken in by an aunt in south Sacramento, Hargrove found it challenging to travel to the Del Paso Heights campus.

"Every morning I would leave the house around 6 a.m. to make a two-hour commute by bus to Grant High School," said Hargrove, who by then was the school's student body president.

During her previous three years at Grant, Hargrove had taken on a new title each year: freshman class president, sophomore class president, junior class president.

While at Grant, Hargrove also worked part time at the Mutual Assistance Network, a program funded in part by United Way's Foster Youth Flourish Signature Project. In the program, she was a lead mentor for Operation Graduation, which encourages tutoring to keep children in school.

Hargrove found a mentor of her own in Shirley Roberts, her leadership teacher at Grant.

"September was a very hard worker," said Roberts, now a substitute teacher in the Grant district. "She was determined to go to high school and to college, no matter what was happening with her home life. I'm extremely proud of her."

Hargrove graduated in June 2002, with the seventh-highest grade-point average in Grant's 380-student class.

With the help of several scholarships -- including one for $1,500 from The Bee's Woman's Day conference -- Hargrove went on to UC Berkeley, graduating in May 2006.

Last summer, she returned to Sacramento and rejoined the Mutual Assistance Network as a volunteer. She is still with the program, assisting foster youth part-time as they prepare to "emancipate," or leave the foster system at 18.

At the Capitol, Hargrove is six months into her yearlong stint as a Senate fellow, learning how the Legislature works and helping to draft some bills. As part of her fellowship, she is taking government classes at California State University, Sacramento.

A firm believer in foster care reform, Hargrove plans to dedicate her life to helping foster children. Whether that will be as an attorney or as an elected official, only time will tell.

In January, Hargrove told her story to United Way's Women in Philanthropy, a group of businesswomen who help area foster youth programs through financial and volunteer commitments.

"September spoke about her experience when she was a foster youth ... and how she was so motivated," said group co-chairwoman Tamar Matzkevich. "She is so bright and positive. I was just so impressed with her."

Hargrove lives with an uncle and her 21-year-old brother. Another brother attends Merced Community College and still another is in foster care in Merced.

Her two youngest brothers are with their mother in Turlock.

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