(CBS SF) — Most parents know how hard it is to get a fourth-grader to clean their room. But what if they had to clean the whole house, cook, and take care of an invalid parent? That is what happened to Brenda Vasquez, a Student Rising Above who is a senior now at Berkeley High.

These days, Brenda Vasquez usually cooks dinner for her mom, who is no longer an invalid but works as a babysitter for sometimes 12-hour days. There’s no dad in the picture, and very little money, but their relationship is something special.  “I’m really proud of her and like, all the things she’s done for me,” Brenda says. They are a team.

The two became unusually close because of an accident that happened when Brenda was in fourth grade. Brenda’s mother seriously injured her leg at work and couldn’t walk. Suddenly, nine-year-old Brenda had to become an adult overnight. “Cook, clean, help move her around,” Brenda recalls her responsibilities. “Help bathe her.” It was a lot to ask of a little girl, but Brenda’s mother needed her help.

Zohra Richardson, Brenda’s school counselor at Berkeley High School, knows how difficult it must have been. “Brenda literally took on the role of being the parent for her mother.” There was no one to be a parent for her. So Brenda got herself ready for school, took the bus there on her own, and finished her homework without help.

Unable to work, Brenda’s mother fell into a deep depression. Their savings ran out. Brenda remembers the uncertainty they dealt with every day, “I was always worried we wouldn’t have money for like anything. We would just be put out on the street.”

Brenda has shared her story with Richardson. “For Brenda,” she says, “it was a fear that–what if my mother does not get well? Who will take care of my mother? Who will take care of me?”

Brenda had heard of foster care and was terrified of that possibility if her mother’s health did not improve. “If she wasn’t able to take care of me, maybe I would be taken away from her,” she says, fighting back tears.

Well, that did not happen. Her mom’s leg healed and she went back to work. But that stressful time had a lasting impact. Poverty has always shaped Brenda’s aspirations and hopes. She never expected to go to college because of the cost, and instead focused on just graduating high school. “I knew my mom could never afford it, so it wasn’t a priority and it wasn’t really one of my goals.”

“Even just in high school, being able to pay for her bare necessities,” Richardson says, “that was always a challenge.”

But then Brenda got accepted into a rigorous college prep program at Berkeley High, called the International Baccalaureate program.  Surrounded by motivated peers, encouraging teachers, and abundant resources, Brenda began to realize she could in fact go to college. She now goes to a tutoring program after school, and her grades have improved dramatically. Perhaps most importantly, she has learned about scholarships that can help her achieve her dream of going to college, including Students Rising Above.

“She had to learn to advocate for herself and to really ask questions and to learn that, wow, there are resources out there, and how do I get ahold of that?” Richardson says proudly.

Brenda has already been accepted to Sonoma State University. When asked about how she feels that going to college is finally within arm’s reach, she laughs disbelievingly, “I just think, woah!”

Brenda hopes going to college will help her get a good job and be able to give back to her mom. She hopes to use her education to help other families like theirs.


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