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Irene Gonzalez, 18, of Richmond is seen in San Rafael, Calif. on Wednesday, June 29, 2011. School has been her safe haven from an abusive childhood, domestic violence, and her father's alcoholism. Gonzalez works full time to help pay the bills, and hopes someday to go to college and become a social worker. (Sherry LaVars/Staff)

Irene Gonzalez never knew whether to expect chocolate chip cookies or screaming.

The soft-spoken 18-year-old Richmond resident remembers cooking and shopping with her father when she was a young girl. She also vividly remembers listening to her parents' bitter arguments and watching her alcoholic father slap her mother.

"Half the time he was a caring, loving father. Half the time it was crazy," she said. "I really love my dad and I always wanted to change him, change what he did. As I grew up, I figured out that I can't."

Gonzalez remembers waiting in the car for her dad to take her home, outside the bar. She recalls the glass bird she gave her mom for Mother's Day, which he shattered in a rage. She relives all the nervous dinners -- he got mad when he didn't like the meal.

He dragged her mom by the hair. Threw steel-toed shoes.

Two things helped Gonzalez maintain her sanity during those years, she said: school and music.

The San Rafael High School graduate said she maintained good grades and a smile with the help of friends and teachers.

She spent her free time playing the violin and performing with the Richmond youth musical group Mariachi Nueva Luz de San Marcos.

"It was either a pencil or my violin in my hand -- it drags me away from all the issues at home," she said. "I always had that one teacher I told everything to. Thank God these teachers have always been supportive and making sure I'm safe."

It was Gonzalez's 15th birthday -- her quinceañera -- that marked a change.


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Her mother's relatives planned a celebratory dinner.

Her father was angry because "he doesn't get along with mom's family," she said.

That disagreement turned into three days of what Gonzalez describes as "arguing to the max," coupled with violence between her parents.

A few days later, the day before Mother's Day, Gonzalez and her mom ran away.

"They kept fighting and screaming. I was crying and panicking," she recalled. "My mom just said, 'Let's go, we're out of here.' We left without anything. We're driving away, and my dad is still screaming."

It wasn't the first time they had left. Gonzalez remembers fleeing with her mother a few times before when things got especially bad, but eventually they always ended up back home, with dad.

"We'd sleep at a hotel for two days. Then my dad would feel sorry, tell us he loved us, send flowers and my mom would always give in," she said. "This time I said, 'I'm absolutely tired of this. If we're doing this, there's no going back.' "

Mother and daughter got a one-bedroom apartment and a restraining order. Gonzalez continued to go to school and worked part time at an insurance office, helping to pay the bills.

Things are still tense with her father, who even after the restraining order continued to contact the family, she said.

Gonzalez's relationship with her mother recently changed "because of my dad's effect on us," and she spent the past summer living with her uncle.

She graduated from high school in June and is trying to move on. She recently started classes at Sonoma State, where she plans to study psychology. She hopes one day to work with children.

Her excitement was palpable a few weeks before she began school.

"College is my way out of all this," she said. "It will be a new, empty page of my life."

Students Rising Above
Students Rising Above invests in low-income, first-generation college students who have demonstrated a deep commitment to education and strength of character in overcoming tremendous odds of poverty, homelessness and neglect. The nonprofit organization helps students realize their potential by guiding and supporting them through college graduation, and into the workforce. For more information on the program or to donate, go to studentsrisingabove.org.