OAKLAND -- It's a struggle for many journalists to make peace with inserting themselves into situations full of misery and hardship, but Wendy Tokuda found a way she says changed her life: She starting fixing things.
Through her work as a television journalist, Tokuda cofounded Students Rising Above, a nonprofit organization offering group help to impoverished students in the nine Bay Area counties.
Like many such foundations, it offers scholarships and other financial aid, but the people running it discovered that sending youths from poverty into college doesn't magically free them from their troubles. They often are baffled by much of the establishment and continue to have family lives afflicted by troubles that come with poverty, with no one playing the grown-up role.
"Kids who don't have parents have extraordinarily sticky, difficult problems," Tokuda said. "The problems they have do not stop when you go to college."
Tokuda's role in the organization came from her work and from an effort to recognize which stories she wanted to spend her life telling.
"I had an editor when I was just getting started in my career who told me, 'Don't do girl stories!' He said he didn't want anything touchy-feely," Tokuda said. "Women were still breaking into news then and I felt a lot of pressure to do harder, drier things."
In the end, Tokuda found herself drawn to stories with an element of human suffering; they were the most meaningful to her. She grew up the child of two Japanese-Americans who had met in an internment camp during World War II, and "knowing how much can change for your family -- they lost everything -- gave all the kids in my family a different perspective."
That perspective made hearing the stories of impoverished children with troubled families especially powerful, Tokuda said, and she ended up working on a series of such stories. Becoming frustrated with a trend in television news that emphasized promotions and teasers, she decided to forgo the core of her training to not advocate for people or causes. She began closing out her reports with a call for funds aimed at putting together a few dollars for the young people in her stories.
"In the beginning, some sweet people would send $20 or $40, and then one day someone came in and gave us $25,000," Tokuda said. "It was incredible, and it kept growing."
The result: Tokuda and a group of other community members launched Students Rising Above eight years ago.
Lynne Martin, executive director of the organization, said the number of children it helps each year has grown from 10 or so to more than 40. The budget has swelled from about $100,000 to almost $2 million, and 160 youths currently are enrolled in four-year colleges across the country. They are the first in their families to attend college, all with some financial aid and the steady presence of mentors from Students Rising Above.
"We talk them through everything we can," Martin said. "We get them access to health care. Many of these kids have never been to a dentist."
Among the program's sponsored teens is Le Tran, 19, whose family abandoned all they had in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, to live in an Oakland basement to follow his mother's dream of her children getting proper educations.
Tran went through the Students Rising Above program and is now a sophomore at Brown University in Rhode Island, studying sociology and education.
"For students of certain disadvantages in their background, that can be a really hard challenge when you don't know anybody who has the confidence it takes to approach somebody for help," Tran said. "I believe that's what the program was really meant for -- not just something for help with financial situations, but a lot of times it's access to the information. People might think this student doesn't have motivation to apply or the trait to apply, but oftentimes, even the process of applying and saying you qualify is a huge concept, outside what you can imagine. The idea wouldn't even pop in people's heads."
Tokuda knows this all too well.
"To sit down with a 17-year-old kid and ask about the worst things that ever happened to them can be tough, because they can feel ashamed of where they come from," she said. "But when they hear, 'I admire you for the strength you showed in getting through this,' it can be very transformative. It gives them a sense of value."
The program has been a blessing not just for the students, but for Tokuda, who said she's grateful for the compassion she sees in the community and for the motivation it gives her.
"People don't generally want to hear about hopeless stuff," she said of her stories. "It's overwhelming and it makes your heart hurt and you can't do anything about it. But give people hope and a way out and a concrete way to do something, and it's amazing. You never know where you're going to find these extraordinary people. They're everywhere."
Contact Sean Maher at 510-208-6430.
Hometown: East Bay hills
Education: Whitman College, University of Washington
Claim to fame: Reporter and news anchor for KRON-TV Channel 4 and KPIX-TV Channel 5
Quote: "People don't generally want to hear about hopeless stuff," she said of her stories. "It's overwhelming and it makes your heart hurt and you can't do anything about it. But give people hope and a way out and a concrete way to do something, and it's amazing."
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