▶ Watch Video: Program helps foster kids achieve college dreams

Los Angeles — At 17, high school senior Julie Penafort could have been just another lost child bouncing around California’s foster care system. Instead, she found hope through First Star Academy at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

The privately funded national program, which operates on 15 college campuses, recruits — practically rescues — foster care kids when they are high school freshmen. It teaches them life skills, and renews their dreams of going to college. 

“They’re like family to me,” Penafort said. “They’ve made a big impact on my life.” 

Nationally, roughly half of foster care children graduate high school, and less than 10% attend college, according to the National Foster Youth Institute. But 97% of First Star Academy’s seniors graduate high school, and roughly two out of three enroll in four-year colleges. 

“We are providing them with a positive adult role model that is going to be with them for four years,” said  Karina Garcia, the director of the First Star program at UCLA. “Consistency is the key word.” 

Penafort’s 23-year-old mentor, Isael Andrade, is a former foster child who went to seven different middle schools. Once a month, for four years, they have met in person. But they are constantly talking, and making sure Penafort stays on track. 

“I see him as a brother,” Penafort said, saying Andrade has taught her how to stand up for herself. 

Penafort is now applying to college. Her first choice is UCLA. 

“Whatever she does, I’m going to be proud of her,” Andrade said.