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Guest speaker and former graduate Deborah Estrada speaks to graduates and their families during the Contra Costa County Office of Education Youth Development Services Participation Award Ceremony at the Contra Costa County Office of Education building in Pleasant Hill, Calif., on Thursday, June 19, 2014. A total of 66 graduates received a certificate of completion of the program and a $100 gift card. Assemblyman Jim Frazier attended the event where he helped hand out certificates and spoke to the graduates about his own personal experiences. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)

PLEASANT HILL -- Jahresha Eberhart will be the first person to tell you that a few short years ago, her life had been headed down the wrong path.

Struggling academically and bouncing from one high school to the next, Eberhart, now 18, says she had no direction and no goals.

Then, at 16, the Oakley teen enrolled in the In-School Youth Program, part of Contra Costa County's Workforce Investment Act program. There, Eberhart was matched with a youth development specialist and connected with a summer job working with the Pittsburg Boys & Girls Club. In short, she said, she was pushed to grow up.

On Thursday, Eberhart graduated from the program armed with not only her diploma from Brentwood's Independence High School but also with plans to attend nursing school and become a registered nurse by her 21st birthday.

"When I look back at where I was and I see myself now talking about a career -- I wasn't like that two years ago," she said. "If I hadn't joined this program, I don't think I would have graduated from anything."

Eberhart was just one of 68 Contra Costa teens honored this week as part of the WIA program's 14th graduating class.

All come from challenging backgrounds -- to participate they must meet certain income criteria, be enrolled in the foster system or be eligible for special needs education services -- and have now overcome those obstacles to start the next chapters in their lives.

Many of the graduates have been accepted to four-year universities for the fall. Others said they will attend local community colleges, obtain professional licenses or open their own businesses. All had a plan for life after high school.

The county Office of Education's Youth Development Services division runs the in-school part of the WIA program. It is funded by the Contra Costa County Workforce Development Board.

Thursday's milestone was celebrated with a dinner for graduates and their families, followed by an awards ceremony where local officials and a past WIA participant applauded their successes and encouraged them to continue learning and contributing to their communities.

Before passing out achievement certificates and $100 gift cards to each graduate, state Assemblyman Jim Frazier, D-Oakley, urged them to remember this accomplishment when faced with difficulties in the future.

"You are here today because you did not give up. You are here today because you showed up," Frazier said.

He also offered to write letters of recommendation for each teen, provided they stay in touch and stay committed to school or work.

Assemblyman Jim Frazier congratulates graduate Jahresha Eberhart, 18, of Oakley, as she receives her diploma during the Contra Costa County Office of
Assemblyman Jim Frazier congratulates graduate Jahresha Eberhart, 18, of Oakley, as she receives her diploma during the Contra Costa County Office of Education Youth Development Services Participation Award Ceremony at the Contra Costa County Office of Education building in Pleasant Hill, Calif., on Thursday, June 19, 2014. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)

Deborah Estrada, a Wells Fargo branch manager in San Francisco, told the crowd her own story of growing up as a first-generation U.S. citizen and having a difficult time navigating her education before joining the WIA program a decade ago.

Estrada said she was armed with help landing her first job, including being outfitted with appropriate interview attire, and was eventually able to go on to earn undergraduate and master's degrees.

"Opportunities don't happen," Estrada said. "You make them."

Another of this year's WIA honorees, a Mt. Diablo High School graduate who asked to be identified only by his first name of Anthony because he is still in the foster system, said he would not be planning to study robotics engineering at UC Santa Cruz in the fall had it not been for the mentorship of youth development specialist Oscar Blackwell.

In addition to providing support, encouragement and accountability, Blackwell helped Anthony finish high school and apply to college with the practical tools often taken for granted: bus fare to and from school each day; help navigating the daunting college application process; and work experience through a job at Mt. Diablo High last summer.

"It was a pleasure working with him," said Blackwell, who has worked for the program since its inception. "He really rose above his circumstances, worked hard and had determination."

The graduation ceremony will air locally on CCTV at 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 27 and 11 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 28. CCTV airs on Comcast channel 27, Astound channel 32 and AT&T U-verse channel 99.