(KPIX 5) — During commencement ceremonies at Portland’s Lewis & Clark College, Joe Williams did something no one in his family had ever done before. He graduated from college. The dignitaries called his name, and he walked across the stage to get his college diploma – an exercise that took only seconds, but the journey to that point took years and a great deal of courage and hard work.

Joe was giddy with happiness when he met up with his family after the ceremonies. “What does it feel like to graduate from Lewis & Clark?” asked his foster father, Randy Bessolo. “Honestly, I don’t know yet, I’m still figuring that out,” Joe replied. Indeed, he looked ecstatic but also a bit overwhelmed.

So was his mother, Angelina Woods, who was there. “I’m so proud of him and thank you for all the support,” she told Joe’s group of friends and family. The group included several foster parents: an aunt who raised him for eight years; and Kathleen and Randy Bessolo, along with their son named after Joe.

“I would like to thank Randy and Kathleen for being crazy enough to let me in their house, like 8 years ago?” said Joe.

In fact, that’s where we first met Joe, at the Bessolo home four years ago when he was a senior at San Francisco’s Riordan High School, attending on scholarship.

He was always a strong student, although occasionally changes in his foster care placement would affect his work. It’s estimated that anytime a foster child changes schools they can lose up to six months of learning.

Joe was too small the first time he was put into foster care. His mom had developed a drug problem. “I remember opening the door and there were just police everywhere and there was my mom being dragged away,” he told us.

Joe and his sister were placed with his aunt; eight years later they were placed back with their mom in the Alemany projects. She had two more children by then. Joe was oldest, and essentially the man of the house, as the father of his two new siblings wasn’t around much.

“Two kids was hard enough for her,” Joe remembered. “When she had four … and I was her only help, it was incredibly hard. She slowly drifted back into drug usage.”

That meant Joe was often left in charge. “He would get them all up, get them fed, get them on the bus, get them to school,” said Randy Bessolo. “He hadn’t done his homework. But the reality was, he was spending a lot of time and energy taking care of his younger siblings.

“The house was often in chaos,” remembered Joe. “I was making dinner or there would be no dinner.” One day, he had an argument with his mother. “She would say, ‘You’re supposed to be helping me!’ And after awhile, it all built up in me, and I was like, ‘This isn’t my job. I love you, but I can’t do this.’”

So he left. He was just 13 years old.

At first, he was just leaving with tears in his eyes. But he found himself walking along Alemany Blvd. past Highway 101 to San Francisco General Hospital, because someone had told him that Child Protective Services had an office there. Joe told a social worker what was happening.

“I was thinking, ‘What have I done? Did I do the right thing? Will she hate me? Where will I end up?’” But something inside told him this was the right decision.

“Part of me kind of told me, I’m doing this for my sister,” he said, “because I’d been given that duty to do what was right for them by my mother and I found that doing what was right was getting them away from her for awhile.”

Joe was placed with Bessolos, who understood the kind of strength it required for Joe to make that call. “It took a tremendous amount of courage for him to walk away from home,” said Randy Bessolo. “He’s walking towards a very uncertain future with a lot of hope that his decision would help his family.”

At Riordan, his grades climbed. He was in a safe place and could be a teenage kid. “When you’re freed from fear and you’re freed from a lot of grown up responsibility when you’re 13 years old … a lot of capacity is freed up and he was able to use that newfound capacity for his education,” said Randy Bessolo.

He hadn’t thought about college at all until high school. Now, he could see new possibilities.

Half of all foster kids drop out of school, and only one to three percent graduate from college. Joe is now one of those graduates with a degree in theatre and a strong computer science background, which will be his focus for employment.

Students Rising Above has been one of supports. “I most definitely would not be here without SRA,” he commented at graduation. “So thank you very much, and I shall find a way to give back.” He’s already giving back by inspiring his younger sister to go to a four-year college. She was there at his commencement and Joe could see the importance of having his family there. He could see that it shows all of his extended family what is possible.

And of course, for Joe Williams, it’s not a simply his biological relatives he includes as family. “With all the families I’ve lived with,” he says, “I kind of don’t think of myself as a foster child anymore. I kind of think of myself as this weird person with multiple families.”

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