Overcoming the loss of both parents, Zena is thriving

By United Way of King County Posted on April 10, 2018 In Helping Students Graduate, Success Stories

Losing a parent is incredibly tough. Losing both your parents to cancer when you’re in middle school? Unbearable. 19-year-old Zena of Seattle endured that kind of heartbreak when she was 14. Her parents’ deaths meant an uncertain future for her and her little sister.

Zena’s aunt offered to let them live with her and her family and in return, Zena helped out with childcare. Her nights spent caring for her younger cousins (ages 7, 5, and 1) while her aunt worked took a toll. “School got really hard starting my freshman year.  Getting up early was a struggle. I often missed 1st and 2nd period, so I didn’t pass those classes.”

Tough getting ‘up’ for school and ‘to’ school: Her aunt’s house was in another town so school was not close by. Zena rode multiple buses each day to make it to class.

When Zena was a senior, she tried to enroll at a nearby school, but a counselor informed her she wouldn’t graduate on time. Her aunt asked if she wanted to stay in school or drop out. Zena felt there was only one answer: she knew she had to be a good role model for her sister.

Seeking out alternatives to traditional school, Zena learned about IGrad, a school United Way funds through its Reconnecting Youth program. It provides personalized support so people like Zena can get reconnected to their education and earn their high school diploma or GED.

Zena has plenty of company at Igrad and other United Way-funded schools in the county. There are 14,000 thousand young people ages 16-24 in King County who have left school without graduating-a staggering statistic. Without a high school education or viable career options, the future is bleak for these young people who hold so much promise. When their prospects are limited, our community suffers.

United Way saw the challenge of student dropout and created Reconnecting Youth to address the issue. The program provides:

  • Outreach to engage students who are disconnected from their education
  • Mentoring and educational coaching to address the specific needs of each student
  • Career navigation so a young person can explore their passions and different career paths

After piloting a successful program in 2014, United Way scaled Reconnecting Youth from one educational partner to 12 across King County. It also leveraged public money to pay half the cost of each student who enrolls and finishes the program. To date, 5,622 young people have participated in Reconnecting Youth and that number climbs every month!

Zena is well on her way to earning her high school diploma. “I always look forward to going to IGrad. It’s like a second home. I get support and know if I need something, I can ask for help. It’s also a place I can come to if I’m struggling at home. “

Thanks to generous donors who invest in Reconnecting Youth, Zena also is enrolled in an aerospace internship. When she finishes the 2-year program, she wants to build planes. “When I was little, I used watch planes fly overhead. Now I want to build them!”


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