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 Stories of Hope and Success Highlight Passport to Life Expo

Hundreds of young people who have been on probation learned about important opportunities and resources Aug. 8 as part of the Sixth Annual Passport to Life Career and Education Expo.

An estimated 800 young adults and 100 parents attended the event, which was held at San Diego City College.

While there, they heard speeches from educators, law enforcement personnel, and two young adults who overcame some of the same obstacles that many youths on probation face. After the speakers, they were able to attend a career and education expo and a variety of workshops.

All of the activities were intended to give them messages of hope along with the ideas, tools, encouragement , and career resources to help them transition into productive adults.

"Many of these youth offenders have never been told they can accomplish great things or that they can go to college," San Diego Superior Court Judge Carolyn M. Caietti said. "We intentionally hold this event on the San Diego City College campus so these kids can begin to feel that higher education is within their reach."

Passport to Life is open to youths between the ages of 14 and 24 who are currently on probation or have been in the past. The event focuses on the importance of finishing high school, going to college, and building work-readiness skills.

The two keynote speakers - Anakaren Ruano and Eliseo Nunez - had both gotten into trouble as teenagers and have been able to turn their lives around. Both said they wanted the young people to know that change is possible.

Ruano told the participants about how she spent her teen years addicted to drugs and moving in and out of the juvenile justice system. After completing rehab, she finished high school and is now attending college with a 3.5 grade-point average.

"It was the best feeling in my life," the 19-year-old said about graduating from high school. "No drug had ever gotten me that high."

Nunez, a former gang member, moved from juvenile court to the state and federal prison system. After almost a decade of moving in and out of correctional facilities, he decided to quit drugs and distance himself from negative influences and behaviors. He went back to school, where he graduated with honors. He recently received a national award for his work in the Urban Corps.

The 27-year-old said that while he was uncomfortable speaking in front of the large crowd at the event, it was important to him to let the participants know that they have options and resources to improve their lives.

"No matter what race you are or what neighborhood you come from, I know deep down inside you want to be successful," he told them.

There were 14 workshops for the students to choose from, including "Don't Allow Your Past to Punish Your Future," "Landing and Keeping a Job," "Pathways to Completing High School," "Education Beyond High School," and "Being Responsible On-Line."

Approximately 80 organizations representing schools, branches of the military, careers, training services, and other resources were on site to provide information and opportunities for one-on-one interaction.

The youths also were able to watch a lunchtime "Dress for Success" fashion show, which featured the proper attire for job interviews and employment.

Judge Caietti collaborated with Chief Probation Officer Mack Jenkins to organize the event along with numerous public and private organizations, including the San Diego County Office of Education.

"Passport to Life fully embraces the mission and goals of the Juvenile Court system." Jenkins said. "Through it, we hope to inspire young people in the system and expose them to opportunities to further their education that they may never have known existed."

Caietti said she came up with the idea for the event after seeing youths in her courtroom who appeared to feel as if their life was over.

"There's a lot of opportunity out there," she told the participants at the event. "Don't let your mistakes of the past define your futures."