Cobb high school graduates defy the odds of foster care

Several speakers offered advice to the grads in the audience. (Photo of three grads in audience)Several speakers offered advice to the grads in the audience. (Photo: Rebecca Gaunt)

By Rebecca Gaunt

*Graduates have been identified by first name only and some faces blurred by request. 

Thirteen students who conquered personal challenges to earn their high school diplomas celebrated their achievements Friday at a celebration held by the Cobb Department of Family and Children Services.

Brittany Hampton, permanency administrator, applauded as Sania was introduced.
Brittany Hampton, permanency administrator, applauded as Sania was introduced (Photo: Rebecca Gaunt)

Two more were unable to attend, one of whom is preparing to begin Army basic training with the goal of becoming a paratrooper.

Some graduates shared their career goals like nursing school, welding, cosmetology, law, and forensic pathology, while others planned to jump right into the working world.

Alexandria told the Courier she plans to go to technical school and become a nurse.

“I enjoy helping people,” she said.

Gift bags and Visa cards provided by the nonprofit Together 4 Grads.
Gift bags and Visa cards provided by the nonprofit Together 4 Grads (Photo: Rebecca Gaunt)

A hard road

Nationally, only about half the children in foster care graduate from high school. Fewer than five percent will go on to earn a degree from a four-year college. Then along came the COVID-19 pandemic, which was particularly hard on this vulnerable population, already at risk for dropping out. The shift to online learning and disruptions to adoptions and placements made an already difficult situation even harder.

Juvenile court Judge Wayne Grannis and family law attorney Dena Crim pose with graduate Frank.
Juvenile court Judge Wayne Grannis and family law attorney Dena Crim pose with graduate Frank (Photo: Rebecca Gaunt)

Luke, a Pebblebrook High School student, earned his diploma despite a very personal battle with the urge to quit.

“I’m gonna be honest, I can’t even say I had a favorite [subject] because high school in general was hard. The whole thing from the beginning to the end was hard. The beginning I almost dropped out, tenth grade I almost dropped out, eleventh grade I almost dropped out, even the end of twelfth grade, I almost dropped out,” he said.

He credited his faith in God and his belief that he had a future and a life to live to hanging in when the going got tough. Luke currently works in a shipping warehouse but is considering continuing with his education.

Cobb Commissioner Keli Gambrill spoke to the crowd.
Cobb Commissioner Keli Gambrill spoke to the crowd (Photo: Rebecca Gaunt)

LaSondra Boddie is the director of Cobb County DCFS. She has worked in child welfare for 18 years and been the director of Cobb for more than five. She credited her aunt, a teacher who used to foster students, for ingraining that sense of service. 

“This is a culmination of the hard work that our graduates have put into, our staff have put into to get our graduates there. I love it. It fills my heart with joy,” she said. “The trauma and the hardships that they go through and then for them to graduate…to have them be in that number is very important.”

Congratulatory signs greeted the grads outside of The Table in Smyrna.
Congratulatory signs greeted the grads outside of The Table in Smyrna (Photo: Rebecca Gaunt)

The event took place at The Table in Smyrna. The graduates received individual introductions and took their seats to hear inspirational remarks from permanency administrator Dr. Rachel Eriamiatoe who told them, “Demand to be seen and heard. Your success is what we’re all here for.”

That was followed by a slide show of the graduates and videos of congratulatory messages from DFCS staff members.

DHS staff joined the graduates for group photos before the ceremony.
DHS staff joined the graduates for group photos before the ceremony (Photo: Rebecca Gaunt)

Foster 4 Love/Together 4 Grads

Lunch followed, with catering covered by Together 4 Grads, the fundraising arm of Foster 4 Love, a volunteer organization to help at-risk youth. It was served by volunteers from the Kiwanis club. 

Dena Crim has been a DFCS attorney for 17 years and spent time in foster care herself as a child.

“I was getting invites to friends’ kids’ parties, and I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful for the community to be able to celebrate these kids and know that these kids are overcoming these things? So many are coming from group homes,” she said.

Crim posted a message on Facebook five years ago and it grew from there. Her friend Annie Cumberledge, a mentor for teens, jumped in to help. Together 4 Grads, a 501c3, has raised $40,000 in the time since.

This year each high school graduate received a $500 gift card in their bag. 

Career goals

man in front of audience pours water into a bowl on floor)
Motivational speaker Eric Anderson urged the grads to keep “pouring into themselves.” (Photo: Rebecca Gaunt_

Illusionist and motivational speaker Eric Anderson also lived in foster and group homes until he aged out at 18. Homeless for a time, he told the grads he finally realized the power of “pouring into yourself.”

He illustrated the point by pouring a seemingly endless supply of water from a planter into a bowl throughout his speech.

Saniyah, a graduate of Osborne High School, told the Courier she plans to study law and will attend Clark Atlanta University in the fall.

“I’m from Chicago, so just coming to Atlanta, that was something big for me. I really just wanted to go to Clark because I want to be a lawyer and go to law school, and I just feel like that would be the right place for me,” she said.

Sania said AP Environmental Science was her favorite class at Seckinger High School.

She originally planned to go to Kennesaw State University, but got waitlisted for student housing. She now plans to major in Biology at the University of West Georgia, where she has a private room secured. Sania is particularly interested in forensics.

“When people hear about me wanting to be a medical examiner, they’re like, you want to deal with dead bodies? But somebody has to do it!” she said.

Sania said she has always had a drive for school. “I don’t think I’ve ever let my situation stop me from continuing with education.”

She’s an honor graduate with seven AP courses under her belt. Sania also feels lucky because she wasn’t in the system for as long as some. She spent four years in foster homes before her sister got her out, giving her a lot more stability.

Joshua graduated from South Paulding High School. He is a fan of science, especially biology.

“But Algebra II, oh don’t get me started on Algebra II,” he laughed. “That was the one subject I was scared about. I thought I wasn’t going to pass it. But I did!”

Joshua plans to go to Chattahoochee Technical College to learn pipeline welding.

“They make pretty good money. You get to travel,” he said.

Matthew Krull, the deputy chief of staff of the Georgia Department of Human Services, smiled throughout the day as he greeted the teens and local staff.

“It’s refreshing to see these youth that have been able to overcome adversity and achieve something that some people would never have expected them to do. That always gives me hope, that in our day and age of polarization, that there is hope in this world for humanity,” he said.