by Christin Ayers and Jennifer Mistrot

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — Students, parents and donors to the Students Rising Above program gathered at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco last week for the annual gala to celebrate the students’ achievements.

It was an opportunity for past and present SRA scholars to say thank you to the organization which has helped hundreds of Bay Area young people achieve their educational dreams.

LEARN MORE: Students Rising Above

The event was a sort of ‘homecoming’ for former NFL player Eddie Williams. Fourteen years ago he was sitting in audience, dreaming of what his future might hold. Now, Williams is the pastor of his own church, and gave the keynote address at the gala.

“I am so happy to be back. I feel so honored,” said Williams. “It’s kind of surreal to be honest.”

Gala attendant and SRA Alum Damont Hardnett is also thankful for the support from the non-profit. Back in 2014, the then Santa Clara high-school senior was already making his mark. He was the president of the Black Student Union and captain of the school’s basketball team. What many of his classmates didn’t know then was that his father was in and out of jail, and his mother was struggling to pay the bills.

“I’m really proud of myself,” said Hardnett back in 2014. “It wasn’t easy. It was not easy at all but I pushed through it. I strived.”

Hardnett graduated and went on to Franklin and Marshall College. Now, he’s landed a job at a major media outlet, and took the stage at the gala to a cheering crowd.

“After graduation, I received a full-time offer at the New York Times,” said Hardnett. “And I’m the first in my family to graduate from college.”

Students Rising Above Executive Director Carolina Martin says students like Williams and Hardnett are the success stories that have fueled SRA for over two decades.

“We’re hitting our stride and now we have alumni that are school board presidents, change makers,” explained Martin. “So we’re celebrating a lot with our students.”

And the end of the Gala the students stood-up in their seats and waived pennants with the names of the colleges they will attend in the fall. In Williams’ Keynote Address he gave them all one piece of advice.

“Wield your story as a weapon against hatred and division and injustice and evil and push back the brokenness in other people’s lives with grace and with peace.”