By Briana Vannozzi
“You’re gonna hold a diploma that a lot of people told you, you would not hold. That’s an awesome feeling,” said Pedro Martinez.
High school senior Martinez describes the long road to his graduation.
When asked what are some of the things that kept him from going to school, Martinez said, “Living conditions.”
Martinez is one of roughly 500 students in a district of nearly 11,000 who have experienced homelessness. Most recently he was living on his own in an RV, right now he’s staying with a cousin and commutes in from Philadelphia every day.
“I was living with my uncle. After I was living with my uncle, I lived with my friend who goes here for about a week,” said Martinez.
“They will tend to couch surf as they call it, where ever someone is able to pick them up,” said Camden City School District Director of Displaced Students Sandra Cintron.
Cintron has the task of tracking displaced students.
“Because a lot of them, because of their movement will not have a lot of documentation, paperwork, immunization, so it’s my job help them obtain that from where they come from,” said Cintron.
She says it’s tough to get an accurate number because a lot of the teens go under the radar.
“They don’t want that extra attention brought to them. They don’t want to kind of come right out and there’s also a sense of stigma with the word homelessness,” Cintron said.
As of 2014 there are just over 4,000 homeless children across New Jersey. 2,094 are between the ages of 6 and 17 and just over 2,000 are under the age of five.
“The choices that I made, if I didn’t make them, I would not be graduating,” said Jazzmine Wilson.
Wilson will put on her cap and gown in just a few weeks. Teachers say it’s her strong will and determination that brought her here.
“It’s been me and my three sisters and my cousin since we was little, through the foster care, through being homeless,” Wilson said.
She and Martinez — a debate team star who helped lead the school team to a state championship — have plans to attend college. They were recently honored as something they truly are, remarkable grads.
“This is the footwork, it’s the heart and the dedication that you put in to get to where you need to be and if you’re not willing to put in, you’re not going to receive as much as you’re putting out,” Wilson said.
“They’ve overcome a lot because they didn’t just have the academics that they had to focus on. They had to focus on survival,” Cintron said.
Both credit teachers for giving them the confidence to believe in themselves. And for acting as a reminder that it’s not about where they’ve been, but where they’re going.
“Yes, I’m from here. It doesn’t mean I do everything everybody else does. I’m here, I’m smart, I’m graduating. You can do it too,” said Martinez.
Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.