Read their stories
San Diego Youth Services has helped more than 797,000 youth since our founding in 1970, including youth struggling with homelessness, family conflict, abuse and neglect, bullying, mental health concerns and substance abuse.
These strong youth are inspiring others by sharing their stories.
From Foster Care to Empowering Others
“Before knowing San Diego Youth Services, I had never had a place to call home,” shares Alona. “I’d never imagined the possibilities I could have by just taking one step.”
Alona was in foster care since her earliest memories. She was moved from family to family before her mom was granted custody of her again at age 10, but it was not the caring and stable life Alona longed for. Her mother struggled with addiction and would leave Alona home alone for months.
Alona tells us about dropping out of school while living out of hotels before her mother was arrested. While alone, she found her way to our emergency shelter for youth.
“The moment I stepped foot in that shelter, everything changed. The staff there became the family I’d longed for, and I began to blossom,” Alona says. “I had a routine and a family behind me to help me.”
With our support, Alona began attending school, went on to join the San Diego Job Corps Center and obtained her GED and a certified nursing assistant certification. She got her first apartment and a car.
“We do not look like what we’ve been through! Many children who suffer from youth homelessness are couch surfing, staying at parks hidden and still attending school. We are a hidden but very real population of youth who aren’t so clearly seen. SDYS is working to help the hidden population of youth like me.”
Alona has come full circle and now works full-time for San Diego Youth Services, helping youth realize their full potential. She also has full custody of her little brother and has a husband and son of her own.
In her free time, Alona is a motivational speaker and shares her story to inspire others. “I am showing our youth that no matter what background you come from and what cards you were dealt you can achieve anything in life that you could possibly dream of.”
“San Diego Youth Services has helped me through the toughest times in my life. They have gone to great lengths to ensure that I build a bright future for myself.
"When I entered the program, I was at a low-point and wasn't sure how exactly I was going to get out of it. My Case Manager and his team gave me assurance that I would be taken care of, and I was. They made me feel like there was always someone who was looking out for me, who had my back, because they do. Over the course of about a year, they have assisted me in getting my own place, job, stabilizing my financial and mental health, improving my diet, pursuing and finding hobbies and things I love doing and helping me become independent.
"Every interaction I've had with an employee at SDYS has been positive, they are truly great people and really do care about their work! Their program is designed to give you a chance to prove to yourself that you can do what it takes to make it on your own, while at the same time making sure that they are there for you when you make a mistake, or need a little or a lot of help. I am very grateful that they found me. I never would have imagined my situation would be this stable and optimistic. I owe it to them to continue my personal growth and I couldn't recommend this program more to a fellow youth who is struggling or needs serious assistance. They will take care of you, but you have to take care of yourself as well, and they provide such an environment to make sure you know they have your back when you need it.
"Thank you to my Case Manager and his team of wonderful people for the great work they do on a daily basis. Programs like this are so important to communities. Our youth are our most valuable population, and when they need it, they deserve the help that this program offers. Especially considering the rapidly changing times we live in. Once again, thank you.”
John arrived at the San Diego Convention Center shelter at the beginning of the pandemic. He was experiencing homeless and in need of help, and he was struggling to find support and direction.
John was connected with San Diego Youth Services at the Convention Center shelter, where our team worked around the clock to move youth out of the shelter and into more permanent housing.
With our support, he was able to move out of the shelter and into a safe place through our transitional housing program. This was a turning point for John, and since then he has been very committed to making healthy changes in his life.
He has been able to formulate and work on his list of goals with our support. One of his main goals was to find steady employment. He has surpassed that goal by being promoted twice already at the pizza shop he now works at. He says that the stability of having a safe place to sleep, in his own bed, has been life changing.
He also enjoys cooking as a hobby and a way of ensuring his physical health. John is consistently working to make his life all that he wants it to be, while working with the support staff at San Diego Youth Services.
Erika Anibogwu was just 15 when she found herself pregnant and alone. Being on her own as a teenage parent wasn’t a choice.
“My mother put me out,” Erika said. “It wasn’t a choice I wanted.”
At 17, she moved into one of our transitional housing apartments in Point Loma with her 18-month-old son. She started working, finished high school and ultimately moved into her own private apartment with our help.
Today, Erika owns a successful child-care business and is earning an associate degree. Now 27 and married, she reached out to share her story and inspire other youth.
“There’s a lot of things I want to do now,” Erika said. “I’m on the ball. People always said, ‘You’re going to be tested’ and it wasn’t important but I’m more established and grown now.
"As a teenager, you think all the rules are so foolish, but I’ve carried all the things I learned at SDYS with me. Keeping your house clean, budgeting, just how to be a successful adult. You learn yourself that it’s important and you can do it. You’ve just got to have patience and stay focused.”
In the last month, Erika received a license to further expand her childcare to 14. She also hired help.
Kim joined our STARS (Surviving Together, Achieving and Reaching for Success) program after learning she was pregnant. Upon hearing the news, her boyfriend/trafficker left her and threatened to hurt her and the baby if she contacted him again.
Kim told of being trafficked since the early age of 14. She was raised in the foster care system and moved from group home to foster home during her early teenage years. She was brought into “The Life” by a peer who introduced her to her first pimp.
After running away, she stayed at friends’ houses until she was arrested and placed in juvenile hall. Although troubled and alone, Kim excelled in her program while in custody and received an award for her achievement in completing it.
But after being placed in foster care, she was led back into the life at 15 and met her second pimp. By 17, she had three pimps and had been trafficked along the coast of California. It wasn’t until she reached our transitional housing program at 19 that Kim was referred to STARS.
With our help, she assisted in putting one of her traffickers behind bars for severely beating and exploiting her. She also completed her first semester in college, enrolled in other services and acquired a job.
She attends prenatal appointments and talks openly about her plans for her child. Kim has a bright outlook and with continued support hopes to stay out of the life and break the cycle of abuse, neglect and abandonment for her child.
Sophia joined our Independent Living Skills program in March 2019 because she was facing adversity within her family, which took a toll on her mental health and overall well-being. She was struggling to keep her grades up and didn’t have the support she needed from her school to pass all her classes.
With our support, Sophia found a tutor, accessed mental health services, and went to summer school to make up the grades needed.
“My case worker helped me a lot,” said Sophia. “She helped me set goals and accomplish them.”
Sophia decided to switch to a charter school during her sophomore year to receive more individualized attention. When she arrived at the charter school her grades improved drastically, and she got a lot of help and support from her teachers. She was able to seriously consider her future college and career aspirations.
“Sophia was able to create positive relationships with her school counselors and became laser focused on being a better student,” said Kacielyn Bagorio, ILS Case Manager.
She was able to earn all A’s and B’s by the end of her senior year and was accepted to most of the 4-year universities she applied to.
“Sophia has a very bright future ahead of her,” said Bagorio. “We can’t wait to see all of the amazing things she will achieve in life. She is a remarkable young woman.”
Sophia will be starting at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in the fall where she will be majoring in criminal justice in hopes to one day become a SWAT team officer or a juvenile hall correctional officer.
William* was really struggling during the pandemic, without a job, support or enough food to eat, and sleeping in the backseat of his car for many months. Luckily, William was connected to San Diego Youth Services, who helped him turn his life around.
On Nov. 24, 2020, William was connected with the staff members of one of our transitional housing programs, Youth Housing Demonstration Project. The next day, he was placed in our housing program. SDYS provided him with housing and his own bed, as well as furniture, household items, hygiene products, and food on a weekly basis, while he stabilized his life.
William was incredibly thankful to be part of our program and to have his own place to call home. With our team’s support, William created a vision plan to map out his goals, including finding long-term housing.
In a few months, he found a job and successfully graduated from our housing program and moved into an apartment where he was the primary lease holder. William is now thriving and has even traded in his old car for a Jeep Wrangler.
Following job readiness training with San Diego Youth Services this past Spring, Abrea went on to apply, interview and accept a full-time position as the project specialist with The Regional Task Force on the Homeless (RFTH), a unique stipend opportunity.
In this new role, Abrea will help plan and implement a federal grant to the task force to reduce youth homelessness. Abrea will receive a $17,000 stipend and a $5,920 education award to return to school where she plans to pursue a career in social work.
“What excites me the most about now being apart of the RTFH is all of the experience I am gaining and the networking skills I am developing,” says Abrea, who received offers for all three of the jobs she applied for after the job readiness training.
“I have met many program managers, stakeholders and business professional people in this last month and there are only more to meet. Being on this journey is so amazing to me just because I never pictured myself being here or doing something like this, but it is now happening, and I believe in myself more than ever.”
Robert recently graduated top of his class from high school and received a full scholarship to a UC university’s honors program. He talks about how “not one, not two, not even three mistakes determine that person we are or will become.”
Arrested twice as a teen for altercations with his mother and sister, Robert became part of San Diego Youth Services Alternatives to Detention Program. He started therapy and became known for his humor, joyfulness and academic achievements.
Robert was involved in many extracurricular activities such as an anti-drug coalition, college-level courses and research programs. He won the scholarship from a private donor, who personally called to congratulate him.
“In order to grow and live out our biggest dreams, we have to rebuild our minds, character and self from the daily mistakes we make,” Robert said. “Don’t be afraid to admit you were wrong or made a mistake because only when you hold yourself accountable are you able to rise above adversities.”
Mia* was only 16 when she became homeless. When she found her way to our emergency shelter for youth, she was struggling with trauma and heavy drug and alcohol addiction. Today, she describes being on the street as terrifying and the shelter as her first stable environment.
She landed her first job at a dog daycare while at the shelter and is now an apprentice as a professional dog trainer. She is also sober.
“[The shelter] gave me the counseling and solid foundation I needed to become a successful member of society,” Mia says. “They helped me to find a place to live, find the treatment I needed and provided counseling. They taught me how to form the right priorities and how to take care of myself to get clean.
“When I turned 18, I went to a treatment center and they helped me find transitional housing for LGBT youth. I will forever be grateful for everything they did for me and helped me do for myself. I now live a safe, beautiful and full life and thank San Diego Youth Services for all they do for young people in vulnerable circumstances and for giving us a chance for an amazing life.”
Anna, 17, has been involved with our Youth Emergency Shelter five times during the past three years.
Anna and her family have struggled with homelessness since she was 10 years old, living on the streets of San Diego, in numerous family shelters and “couch surfing” between friends. At one point, Anna was suspected of being involved in sex trafficking.
During her final stay at the shelter, she worked with her case manager and social worker to pursue more permanent solutions and started therapy with our Counseling Cove program. The program provides intensive outpatient behavioral health services and case management.
Anna was awarded her dependency by the court system and is currently living with a foster family. She graduated from high school, has part time employment and plans to begin community college.
Noemi Jimenez has come full circle. Once a homeless teenage mother, she has become a proud donor giving back.
Jimenez, is a supervisor at Coronado Distribution Company, where the company gives each month to a charity of an employee’s choice.
Jimenez chose San Diego Youth Services for helping her with transitional housing, independent living skills and, ultimately, a new life for her family at a time when she needed it most.
“I wouldn’t have thought I could live by myself but San Diego Youth Services helped me. I know how to budget my money and plan. I’ve got this. I always tell my daughter about the program and how it helped me. I tell her about the importance of giving back.”
Jimenez’ advice for others who may be struggling: “Don’t limit yourself. You really can do anything.”
Mary entered the San Diego Youth Services transitional housing program as a lonely, traumatized young woman. She was 18.
She had initially sought refuge at our Youth Emergency Shelter before joining one of our transitional housing facilities for youth ages 16-24. She was unemployed and dealing with an ongoing domestic violence issue.
It took some time for her to focus and begin to develop a vision for the future. However, once engaged, she made rapid progress.
She updated her resume and received job readiness skills. This led to her securing several positions as a server in restaurants. During her stay in the program, she saved $13,000 from her work. Her high level of motivation also led her to enroll in community college.
Today, Mary no longer needs services. She has become a well-adjusted young woman with the independent life skills for continued success. She continues to attend school and maintains an overall straight “A” grade level. She also recently purchased a car with some of her savings.
Her goals for the future are to complete college and secure a job in social services. With the help of our staff, she is working on a transition plan to live independently.