‘A second family’: Graduates share hardships Nevada County’s Friendship Club help them overcome
Special to The Union
Graduation ceremonies can be emotional, and The Friendship Club graduation Thursday night was a little more heart-wrenching than most.
Along with centerpieces at each table, there were tissue boxes.
Those tissues were welcome as more than 150 family, friends, and supporters cheered on The Friendship Club graduating Class of 2019.
Since 1995, The Friendship Club has provided academic, social, and emotional assistance to 600 at-risk girls in Nevada County. Thursday’s ceremony at the Miner’s Foundry Cultural Center in Nevada City honored seven longtime Friendship Club members who are concurrently graduating from the club and their respective high schools.
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“Dad left when I was 3 months old,” 17-year-old Hannah English told guests at the ceremony. “I was bullied a lot from kindergarten until my 10th year of school. It got really bad in sixth and seventh grade, when I was bullied daily.”
The connections made and support received at The Friendship Club helped Hannah turn despair into hope. In one year, she improved her academic grade point average from 0.36 to a 3.36 GPA. Hannah will graduate from Silver Springs High School next month.
“The Friendship Club is like a second family,” she said.
CLUB ‘empowered me’
In turn, five of the seven graduates described their personal stories of challenge and hardship, then shared their life-changing experiences at The Friendship Club.
“I felt out of place in school, my own skin, and my own home,” said 17-year-old Dejah Thurman, who is graduating from Silver Springs High School one year early as a junior. “I never thought I would make it this far.”
One graduate plans to study quantum physics, another will join the U.S. Air Force, and yet another is renovating a school bus into a tiny house in which she’ll live while studying community planning and architecture in college.
Those are impressive successes and lofty goals for girls who at one time faced poverty, abuse, or trauma. Each year, The Friendship Club engages, educates, and empowers an average of 100 girls between the ages of 10 and 18. The girls learn about health and wellness, goal-setting, self-awareness, healthy relationships, community connections, and self-sufficiency.
“In my six years of being in The Friendship Club, I’ve learned a lot about love, caring, and most importantly, ‘adulting,’” said 18-year-old Hailey Swain, who will graduate from Bitney Prep High School. “The Friendship Club has empowered me to help others who are struggling.”
Friendship Club graduates may apply for $1,000 annual scholarships if they take college or career technical education classes. The scholarships can be renewed for up to four years.
Most Friendship Club girls join the summer before they enter sixth grade, and of those who participate in the program through their senior year in high school, 95 percent go on to attend college.
“We challenge our girls to be their best selves,” said Executive Director Jennifer Litton Singer.
‘DREAMS COME TRUE’
After-school meetings at the Friendship Club campus on Litton Drive in Grass Valley include healthy meals and tutoring services. Field trips range from exploratory visits at college campuses to exciting outdoor activities such as sailing. “Fun Fridays” are a chance to do homework, bond with other members, or simply have fun.
If a girl chooses, she is assigned a mentor or “Angel” and the pair decides how often to meet and what to do, whether it’s hiking, shopping, or anything in between.
Staff, volunteers, and mentors stay connected with Friendship Club members over the summer via five camps, seven special three-day clinics, and a weekly reading club.
The Friendship Club operates on an annual budget of $850,000, mostly funded by business and individual donations, plus private foundation grants (visit FriendshipClub.org). Organizers say they hope in the future to apply for government grants, especially monies targeted to alleviate homelessness among teenage girls and boys.
With 12 paid staff members, the club relies on 150 volunteers who prepare 5,000 hearty meals annually, mentor and tutor girls, and drive members to meetings. The volunteers rack up more than 8,000 cumulative hours each year.
As Thursday’s graduation ceremony came to a close, graduates received a standing ovation.
Singer thanked the crowd, “You are helping make dreams come true.”
Lorraine Jewett is a freelance writer who lives in Nevada County. She can be reached at LorraineJewettWrites@gmail.com
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