PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Just as fall's brisk air blew into Oregon, Sky White found himself living on the streets for the first time in his life.
But after that move from Salem to Portland in 2009, White sought the homeless services that helped him find his future.
On June 29, the 23-year-old was among 17 students participating in a joint graduation ceremony for the New Avenues for Youth and Outside In alternative school programs. Held at the Gerding Theater at the Armory in Northwest Portland, the ceremony featured about 50 homeless students who earned their GEDs this year.
Both nonprofits empower homeless and at-risk youth by providing access to food, housing, employment training, counseling, medical care and other social services. The students say the programs provide a safe environment and give them the tools to be successful and independent.
It was two years ago when White, who was diagnosed with Crohn's disease at 16, had to drop out of an education and training program because of chronic pain caused by the inflammatory bowel disease. In the process, he and his then-girlfriend lost their housing in Salem.
The couple slept under a bridge and found places to shower, wash clothes and eat. White says he did everything he could to not appear homeless, including packing lightly. Though he didn't have health insurance and needed medical care, he refused to ask strangers for spare change.
"I am not the type who can go up to people and ask for money," White says. "I'd rather earn money myself than ask someone."
The couple decided to move to Portland where they would have access to more homeless resources. He enrolled in the New Avenues for Youth's school to earn a GED — it gave him a chance to make up dropping out of high school his senior year.
White says his mentors allowed him to mature and figure out how to make the right choices in life. He recently completed his second term at Portland Community College and is considering a job in computer game development or nursing.
"It feels like I accomplished something," he says of graduating. "Now I get this college experience. I feel like I'm trying to make up for lost time."
The day was equally important for Adrianna Davis, 20, who found out hours before the ceremony that she passed her final math exam and earned a GED.
As she gripped her results, she recalled what led her to that prideful moment.
Davis became disenchanted with education at an early age and bounced around Portland schools until she dropped out in the sixth grade. She says she met a man on the streets who manipulated her into becoming a prostitute.
From 13 to 17 years old, Davis spent her nights with nameless men and her mornings looking for places to sleep.
Her wake-up call came when she was 17. A man she knew beat her viciously and stole her money. She needed a change.
She turned to Outside In and applied for its services. She secured housing through the program and began her journey to complete school.
Her support network included her probation officer, counselors, teachers and volunteers who encouraged her to pursue an education. In the fall, she will begin classes at PCC. She works as a concession manager at the Rose Garden and wants to go into nursing or social work.
"I know education is the way to a better future," she says. "I'm just trying to live out the American dream."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.