Char-Leen Craner knew the drill. Her parents would begin to argue. Their anger, fueled by drugs and alcohol, would quickly turn to rage. Char-Leen would herd her sister, Christina, 6, and brother, Nathan, 4, into a bedroom and close the door. Only when the riotous confrontation had run its course, often with the aid of police intervention, would she dare peek outside to see if the coast was clear.

Char-Leen Craner was 8.

Now 20, she says substance abuse changed her mom and dad from attentive parents who enjoyed taking family camping trips to Yosemite to addicts who bounced from one residence to another before farming their children to relatives. The Craner kids wound up living with their maternal grandparents in Oakland. Their parents eventually separated. They are sporadically involved in their kids' lives.

Contacted by phone, Chris Craner, Char-Leen and Christina's father, confirmed his daughters' account of their parents' substance abuse and physical altercations.

It's the kind of story that often ends poorly for children caught in the crossfire. But the Craner sisters have refused to accept their parents' reality. With the help -- academic, financial and emotional -- of two local nonprofits, San Francisco-based Students Rising Above and Oakland-based College Track, both Char-Leen and Christina began college classes last month. Char-Leen is in her junior year at UC Berkeley. Christina, 18, is a freshman at Humboldt State.


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"Everybody always asks me: Where did your motivation come from?" Char-Leen said one recent sunny day on the UC Berkeley campus. "I think my biggest motivator is me. I knew at age 7 or 8 years old, when things started to really go bad, that this is not how my life is going to be."

"I've always followed her footsteps," Christina said of her sister. "She had everything set up. It was like, I'll just do what she does and I know I'll be good."

Good, as in Char-Leen graduated from Oakland High School with a 3.7 grade-point average. She earned two UC Berkeley scholarships offered to students who have overcome socioeconomic disadvantages. Christina graduated with a 3.3 GPA. Both women receive financial support from Federal Student Aid as well as College Track and SRA.

Their academic achievement is even more impressive considering it came during a time of personal upheaval.

Their grandparents provided a sense of stability. But in 2007, two weeks before Char-Leen began high school, her grandmother died of cancer. At 14, Char-Leen suddenly was thrust into a maternal role.

"I've never done laundry before, and I have to do laundry for everyone," she said. "All of a sudden the house is dirty because there's no one there to clean it. Being the oldest, it was always important to me to be protective over Nathan and Christina. But it was so hard to make them get out of bed and put on clothes and go to school."

Three months after their grandmother died, their grandfather told the kids he had lung cancer. He died in February.

"We thought he was going to be gone immediately," Char-Leen said. "He held on for almost six years, and I know it was only because of us."

Char-Leen now has her own apartment. Soon, she said, her brother will be moving in with her.

"She hasn't had a lot of time to think about herself," said Jennifer Malkin, Char-Leen's SRA adviser. "Her tendency in her heart is always helping others. She's expressive, thoughtful, silly, loving and generous. She has the whole package."

Christina is taller and quieter than her big sister but shares her resolve.

"They chose drugs rather than taking care of us," she said of her parents. "That made me upset. I didn't want to go down the bad path at all. I didn't want to be like my parents."

Char-Leen said she believes her father, who lives in Stockton, is no longer taking "hard core" drugs. Her mother, she said, "is on the path to sobriety." The family members are on good enough terms that they all caravaned to Arcata to escort Christina to her Humboldt State dorm room.

"It's going to be totally new," said Christina, who wants to study marine biology. "I have to find things out for myself. That's new for me. But I'm excited for it."

DeeDee Romo-Nichols, Christina's SRA mentor, expects there may be some challenging times ahead.

"She's going to be exposed to other students who have other life experiences," Romo-Nichols said. "She's going to think, 'Wow, my life experience was tough.' She's still dealing with emotion that she has been suppressing for so long. But she's a tough girl. She'll do fine."

While little sister was apprehensive about the new school year, big sister was bemoaning the fact she has only two years left before graduation.

"College has been a transcending journey for me," said Char-Leen, who served an internship with San Francisco's Glide Memorial Church this summer. "To be at a place where there's so many intellectual people who want to learn, it just rubs off on me. I don't ever want to leave."

Char-Leen is majoring in sociology but said that could change. "I'm at this point in my life where I'm trying to discover what I really like," she said. "I'm really open to anything."

Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/garyscribe.

students Rising above
Students Rising Above, a nonprofit organization founded in 1988, provides financial and mentoring support, summer internships and medical and dental services to students in the region with strong character and scholastic aptitude.
The program assists first-generation college students striving to overcome impoverished upbringings by shepherding them through their senior year of high school, the college application process and throughout their years in college.