By Dennis McCall
A legendary civil rights activist had a simple message Friday for the 25 graduates of Taft College's Transition to Independent Living Program.
"Just go out there and see how many people you can help," urged Dolores Huerta, a recent California Hall of Fame inductee who has devoted her life as a champion for workers, immigrants and women. "That's what I hope you will be able to do when you go out into the world."
The co-founder of the United Farm Workers union told the TIL Class of 2013 to capitalize on the independence they've forged over the past two years and be willing to seek help when needed.
"Stand up for yourself and be strong," she said. "At first it will be kind of scary. Never be afraid to ask for help."
Huerta, whose granddaughter, Micaela, was among the graduates and introduced her, said she's delivered commencement addresses at prestigious universities like UC Berkeley, Yale, Harvard and Princeton but "this is the most special graduation that I have ever spoken at."
She encouraged the graduates to work hard at improving the world.
"You've been prepared to go out there and make the world a better place."
Alluding to her own activism, she urged the grads to play an active role in the political process by being informed of issues when it's time to cast their ballots.
One of the key issues facing students today, Huerta said, is the rising cost of student loans.
"We need student loan interest rates to be lower, not higher," she said, urging them to be active by letting their legislators know their concerns. "These are some of the things you need to do."
Jesley Handy and Chris Lacefield represented the Class of 2013 and recognized several local institutions that helped the TIL students. They included West Side Urgent Care, Chevron Valley Credit Union and the West Side Recreation and Park District.
Dr. Steve Washington accepted the certificate on behalf of the Urgent Care and said he's a witness to the transition toward independence the graduates achieved.
"It's been a pleasure to take care of you and watch you develop confidence," he said. "When you first came (to the clinic) you were shy, hesitant, but at the end of two years you came in a little bossy. You are able to speak for yourself, and I wish you the best in the future."
Les Clark III accepted the certificate on behalf of the Recreation Center and urged the graduates "do stuff that you want to do. Get a job that you are passionate about and you'll never have a bad day."
TIL Director Sandra Popejoy was applauded for her nearly 20 years of service to the program. She is retiring this year.
Page 2 of 2 - Jeff Ross, who co-founded the TIL program and has been it's most vocal cheerleader, said more than 300 students have completed the two-year program and are now living on their own.
2013 TIL graduates:
Joey Barraza, Jeremy Bressick, Brett Carmody, Daniel Desmond, Carolyn Ellsworth, Guy English, Maximillian Gosselin, Jesley Handy, Micaela Huerta, Darren Kissick, Evan Klein, Chris Lacefield, Caroline Maciey.
Also Jessica Marrero, Elizabeth McCormick, Colin Meyer, Chris Moore, Connor Rufe, Sharma Priya, Mitchell Spence, Jori Trammell, Thomas Valdivia, Morgen Williams, Jenna Yee, and Gabrielle Zoger.