The afternoon heat that hit the Willamette Valley June 12 didn’t stop the festivities surrounding the graduation of dozens of youth at Oregon Youth Authority’s Albany facilities.
Forty-seven youth received their high school diplomas or GEDs at the joint graduation for Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility’s Three Lakes High School and the Young Women’s Transition Program’s Riverside High School. Among them were 10 youth who have paroled out of the facility but wanted to return for graduation, since they had completed their degrees or GEDs while at Three Lakes or Riverside high schools.
Additionally, one youth, H.W., graduated with an Associate of Arts Oregon transfer degree from Linn-Benton Community College. LBCC President Greg Hamann attended the ceremony to personally present her with a diploma.
Oak Creek Superintendent Mike Riggan compared the day’s staggering numbers to those of 2012, when there were only 16 diplomas and GEDs given out, no youth from the community returning for graduation, no youth enrolled in college and only two vocational education programs offered. Compare that to 2019, when there are 47 diplomas and GEDs, 10 community youth returning, 35 youth involved in college, and 19 voc-ed programs.
“Two characteristics for life: You have to show up and you have to care,” he said. “Right here we have 47 examples of showing up and caring.”
Research from the RAND Corporation shows that incarcerated people who participate in educational and vocational training programs are 43% less likely to be arrested for another crime than those who do not — which is why OYA emphasizes education for youth.
“Our kids work hard and they don’t have the other things that distract them from school,” Joy Koenig, principal of Three Lakes and Riverside high schools, said. “I’m so proud of our youth.”
The facilities hosted guest speaker Justice Adrienne Nelson, the first African-American female to be on the Oregon Supreme Court. Nelson urged the graduates to recognize that life is not about being perfect, to not let others define them, and to have the courage to follow their hearts.
“Don’t let anybody stop you from making your history,” she said. “I take to this day strength from the words of Maya Angelou, and I quote, ‘You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.’ And I think all of the young women here today are a testament that they weren’t reduced by situations that happened to them. I want to celebrate you.”
“I am fearless, strong, and worthy because I’m surrounded by people who believe in me.” — D.E.
“A lot of people living outside these walls don’t know how much we accomplish. Here, you’re a somebody.” — A.O.
“People would tell me you need to get your act together and get your education but all I did was nod and let it slip away. Now I can’t believe I made it. I never thought I would be walking in my cap and gown. I used to think I’d never make it past my 18th birthday. But I beat the odds. I knew it was time for a change.” — N.T.
“‘The best view comes after the hardest climb.’ … I never thought I would make it further than a cashier at minimum wage Burger King or a stay-at-home housewife. Three Lakes High School has given me real opportunities regardless of my criminal history. … The teachers make me a part of my education and planning instead of making me a stranger to it. From where I’m standing, climbing my mountain was definitely a tedious task and yet it was certainly worth the view.” — E.G.