Victor Pinzon, 25, knows about fighting. As a youth growing up in a gang-riddled Northern California neighborhood, he let his fists do the talking. Eventually his constant scrapes with the law landed him in juvenile hall by age 12, and he spent the next five years bouncing between detention halls and probation camps.
“At the age of 13, I was made a ward of Santa Clara County, 50 miles outside of San Francisco, California. I was getting into fights and though I was not a gang member, I was gang-related. I was hanging around gang bangers, getting kicked out of middle of school and on a path leading nowhere. Barely a teen, I was sent to juvenile hall and later was eventually placed in a group home called Optimist Youth Homes and Family Services (OYHFS) in Los Angeles, California, about 350 miles away. I was sent far away from my mother and two brothers, because I was engaging in negative behavior. I was sad to be separated from my family, but soon realized I was lucky.
OYHFS offered me a variety of services such as counseling, recreation, cultural arts, substance abuse management programs, mental health services and more. It was a great alternative to juvenile hall, and in no time at all, I was thriving. Living away from my old neighborhood where nobody knew me was a new beginning. I attended school without fighting. I got to see soccer matches, basketball and hockey games in person, even went to a live musical concert–these were things that I never experienced at home since my mother worked two jobs and had other kids to take care of.
I connected with other young people with similar backgrounds, and also bonded with counselors who worked there. The counselors were awesome and talked to me about my future, how to keep a job, build credit and the importance of hygiene. They trusted me to make good choices and this motivated me to finish high school and get involved in track and field and run cross county. They helped me get my life back on track.
At OYHFS, I also met regularly with a therapist who helped me deal with my emotions and maintain ties with my biological mother. I still missed her and my family as I did not see them often. A year later when I was 15 and it was time for me to return home, OYHFS gave me two options: I could either reunify with my biological mother in Northern California, or remain in OYFHS’ group home in Southern California.
I was torn. Going back to my old neighborhood could prove disastrous for my future and encourage my old behavior of fighting, hanging around with the wrong crowd and possibly returning to juvenile hall. I had already lived that life and didn’t want to go through that again. With my mind made up, I explained to my probation officer and social worker that I did not want to go home to my mother. Fortunately, the judge at Santa Clara Children’s Court agreed and I was able to remain at OYHFS for an additional two years until I was 17.
After that, at the age of 18, I moved to OYFHS’ Independent Living housing program, where I learned how to budget, do my own laundry, write a resume and master basic life skills. This invaluable education lasted until I aged out of the foster care system.
Leaving foster care and being on my own, I decided to make my goal of attending college happen. I applied and got into Hillsides’ Youth Moving On (YMO) Transitional Housing Program. While living there, I paid rent, participated in career and education classes, and worked with several mentors who assisted me through my enrollment process at Pasadena City College. The Director and Youth Advocate at Hillsides held workshops on where to look for college scholarships and how to apply. I applied and was accepted, but did not receive financial aid. I didn’t know how I would afford to go to college, but Hillsides YMO paid the registration fees and purchased my books.
Without question, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to OYHFS and Hillsides for getting me ready for adulthood and college. Because of their support and guidance, I developed the foundation and skills needed for college.
Since 2010, I’ve been speaking publicly about my journey from juvenile delinquent to college student. After graduating from Pasadena City College, the STARS (Scholars Transitioning and Realizing Success) Program and EOP&S (Extended Opportunity and Program Services) invited me to speak with undergraduates about my education; how long it took me to graduate; financial, social and/or academic struggles; what motivated me; where I transferred; and offer advice to students. I’ve also been invited by OYHFS and Hillsides to speak on my accomplishments within each program and how I grew as a result of their services. And when I was a member of Victory Outreach Eagle Rock ministry outreach team, I spoke to youth in juvenile halls and prisons about what God has done in my life to inspire them.
Today, I am now a junior at California State University, Dominguez Hills. I will graduate in May 2018 and earn my degree in Bachelor of Arts, Psychology. With every opportunity I get to speak, I’ve shared with fellow foster youth that it’s possible to change their life and become a successful person. All they need is faith, determination and mentorship.”