Jazzmine Wilson of Camden High speaks at an awards program at the Kroc Salvation Army Center for seniors who faced long odds, joined by classmate Taylor Patterson (left). (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
When Jazzmine Wilson turned 18 last year, she had little time to enjoy the milestone. Her aunt who had raised her for much of her life announced that the teen would have to move out, because she was getting a smaller apartment.
Wilson, then about to start her senior year at Camden High School, faced the possibility of homelessness. As a veteran of the foster system, she was reluctant to go to a group home.
Wilson, now 19, got a job in retail, and her older sister moved in with her. It wasn't easy having to suddenly start taking care of herself practically overnight, but she kept going to class. In two weeks, she will graduate and go on to attend Camden County College this fall.
"It's been some big bumps in the road," she said this week. "I wasn't prepared to be on my own. Nothing can prepare you for that. And there were times I wanted to give up."
Wilson was one of 20 graduating seniors from Camden high schools honored Wednesday at the Kroc Salvation Army Center for overcoming adversity, and who are going on to attend college next fall.
It was the second annual ceremony in a district where many students face far greater challenges than teenagers in neighboring suburbs, such as homelessness, pregnancy, or the murder of a close relative, and where two out of five seniors did not graduate from high school last year.
Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, who emigrated from Iran when he was in fourth grade, told the assembled students that the challenges they faced would make them who they are, and that they should never be ashamed of themselves.
"You now have a responsibility to support future generations of youth coming through this city," he said, "because you are the future leaders of this community."
The event, attended by parents, relatives, friends, and teachers, was hosted by Mina SayWhat, a New Jersey native and host of the Power99 Rise and Grind Morning Show.
Those honored included students like Camden High's Pedro Martinez, who became homeless last year. When his girlfriend's mother offered him a trailer to live in, he wired it for electricity. Martinez will attend the Kaplan Career Institute next fall.
Anthony Torres also kept his focus on his schoolwork despite experiencing homelessness and transferring to Woodrow Wilson High School in his senior year. He is attending Montclair State University and hopes to become a music therapist.
Wilson was taken from her mother's custody as a baby, and said she bounced around foster homes before her aunt took her in. Wilson acknowledged that she wasn't easy to raise, but wished she had learned more life skills, such as how to manage her budget with the state assistance she receives, and to do her own laundry and other tasks.
"I'm learning now," she said. She has grants to cover her first year of tuition, and wants to study business in college. She thinks about owning her own company some day.
Monica Amador-Chacon, 18, has also assumed adult responsibilities at home. With her single mother often working multiple jobs, the Woodrow Wilson senior has been in charge of her younger brother and sister for years, cleaning the house and getting them dressed.
Since her mother often wasn't around to help with her schoolwork, she depended on her teachers for help.
"Some people are afraid to ask questions because they're afraid they'll sound dumb," she said. "I always ask the question, because then I won't be dumb."
Before her parents split up, her father used to read her history lessons from books and teach her about America. When she enters Camden County College this fall, she plans to study education so she can become a history teacher.
"I'm excited for college," she said. "Learning means you get the tools for what you want to do in life."