At-risk SF youths embark on new beginnings

When Meredith Hardesty ran away from her abusive home at 14, the last place she expected to find herself 10 years later was graduating from high school with plans to get a master’s degree. But that’s exactly what happened.

Today, she will celebrate receiving her high school diploma. Nineteen other at-risk youths who aligned themselves with San Francisco’s Larkin Street Youth Services nonprofit will also receive diplomas or degrees. The organization helps homeless youths get off the streets through housing, education, employment and health services.

“This is the beginning of my life — this is where the door opens,” said Hardesty, now 24, who plans to speak at the graduation ceremony that begins at 1:30 p.m. at Unitarian Universalist Church, 1187 Franklin St.

Hardesty was literally plunked on the doorstep of the organization’s drop-in center by a case manager when she was 18, after Hardesty’s mother died by suicide. Hardesty soon decided to pursue her high school diploma with the help of the program.

“I had problems focusing; I had really bad issues reading,” Hardesty said. The Larkin Street staff “sat with me, worked with me.” They also provided her emotional support.

Alex Bergeron, 19, is also celebrating receiving a diploma today. He is the first one in his family to graduate from high school.

Raised in a Muslim household, Bergeron, who as an adult has come out as transgender, felt out of place and at 13 was put in foster care. After bouncing around various foster and group homes in the Bay Area, Bergeron returned home just before turning 18.

But Bergeron ran away again, and, after briefly moving in with a relative in San Francisco, started coming to the drop-in center every day.

Bergeron needed only four more credits to graduate from high school, which Larkin Street facilitated. The Five Keys program that helps underserved students achieve education provided an opportunity for Bergeron.

Now armed with a high school diploma, Bergeron, who works at a dog-washing facility in the Castro district, wants to pursue a career in dog grooming and animal behavioral services.

“I’ve come a long way and it’s been a hard journey, but I’m glad I’ve made it this far,” Bergeron said.

Hardesty hopes to wind up right back at the Larkin Street center working with the next generation of struggling youths once she’s completed her master’s in social work.

“I was a child who went through a lot of trauma, and I understand,” Hardesty said. “I have sympathy for a kid who maybe got really violent who should be given a second chance. I see a future in children with multiple issues.”

Today’s ceremony will mark a record-high number of homeless and runaway youths — 20 — receiving high school diplomas, GEDs, vocational certificates or associate degrees since Larkin Street Youth Services began its annual graduation ceremony in 2007.

“Graduation is a huge accomplishment for any young person, but it is a particularly huge accomplishment for someone who has been dealing with homelessness while working on their high school GED or going to college,” said Sherilyn Adams, the organization’s executive director.

Last year, Larkin Street helped 99 formerly homeless youths enroll in post-secondary education. The organization reaches about 3,500 people annually, ages 12-24, through its 14 locations and 25 programs.

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