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Student Overcomes Drug-Ravaged Home, Absent Parents To Graduate From UC Berkeley

BERKELEY (CBS SF) -- Graduating from the University of California, Berkeley is not just an academic accomplishment or simply a milestone. For Char'Leen Craner, it is an improbable life event she made happen with willpower and grit.

Char'Leen is the first in her family to go to college, and you could see the triumph in her face as her name was called out and she crossed the stage at Zellerbach Hall for her diploma - pumping her hands in the air as if raising the roof. "It feels groundbreaking for me," she said. "I feel as if I've been waiting for this moment my entire life."

But she wasn't just waiting. For most of her life Char'Leen could never just "wait" for anything or else it wouldn't happen.

We first met her when she was a senior at Oakland High in 2010; an honors student with a 3.7 GPA. She was also responsible for her brother and sister, having no parents in the home to support them.

"She is in charge of running a household," her teacher Michelle Vargas said. "She has to be on top of her siblings make sure they to only get their work done but that they're fed, in addition to mothering them (she) essentially takes care of her older grandfather."

"It started when I was 9," Char'Leen explained, "just getting them up for school making sure they got their clothes on for school, cooking dinner for them."

Who takes care of you, I asked her. "I do," she answered laughing. "I do. Me. I take care of myself."

"She's one of the strongest people I know," said Vargas. Even back then, you could see that steely strength in her teenage face - almost as if she had to brace herself for possible difficulties.

It wasn't always that way. A home video from Char'Leen's 7th birthday shows an innocent, carefree little girl sitting at the head of the table in front of a cake lit with candles, as friends and family sing "Happy Birthday." She squints her eyes to concentrate on making her best wish, then blows out the candles. Such a sweet, idyllic moment in what had been a happy childhood.

Bt Char'Leen was already beginning to see changes in her life that the video didn't show. Drugs were creeping into their home and would eventually destroy both her parents.

"When my dad went on drugs, he didn't want her anymore," she explained, referring to her mother. "So when she realized that she didn't have a family anymore, that's when she got hooked on heroin."

They lost that childhood home, moved around lot and eventually her father left. Her mother was shot twice in the street. She survived but, wasn't around much after that.

Char'Leen and her younger brother and sister moved in with their grandfather. Char'Leen was now in charge.

"I consider them my kids in a sense," she told us when she was still in high school. "They really mean a lot to me, like getting them out of Oakland and into college is something that is important to me."

Char'Leen accessed every program for low-income kids that would give her the experiences and support she didn't get at home. She told her siblings to do the same thing. The day we visited her at Oakland High, she and her sister were taking the bus after school to a program called "College Track." It was a tutoring and college prep program for kids like her.

Later she would be selected for Students Rising Above (SRA), but she also enrolled in Coro Exploring Leadership, which gave her the opportunity to organize a violence prevention event. Through the Environmental Science Academy at school, she got to go on field trips and developed what she called a "broader sense of how to learn."

I asked her teacher how difficult Char'Leen's life was, compared to other kids at Oakland High, which sits on the edges of East Oakland, in one of the roughest neighborhoods in the city. She answered that her situation was not unusual at that school. "There are kids who walk these halls who can speak about domestic violence, rape, abuse, drugs, all of that, but they use it as an excuse," she said.

But not Char'Leen. She drew her motivation from it to change her life. Even then, she would say she became who she is because of the difficulties she'd survived.

"Being successful in life is not some miracle," she wrote in her personal statement in high school. "Being successful is a choice you make, no matter where you come from or what you have been through."

All of this led her to SRA, which would help her throughout the college years. She chose to go to UC Berkeley not just because of its rigor, but because she would then be close to home and her siblings. Her sister, Christina, would later get into SRA as well.

While at Cal, her grandfather died, and she moved out of his home and into an apartment with her brother. Although she cobbled together all the scholarships she could find, she still had to work – at one time holding down three jobs to pay the bills.

Char'Leen said going to Cal was one of the hardest things she'd ever done, but one of the most rewarding. It was also a way to change the expectations and hopes of her siblings. "They're going to see that it's going be a completely different experience, that graduating from college is what it takes to be able to move forward, and I think my sister and my brother both understand that."

In fact, the shared experience with her brother and sister was one of the things that held Char'Leen together. "They are some of my best friends," she said. "They're the only ones who have been through what I've been through."

There was a grace about her after college that her years at Cal, and her study abroad in Costa Rica seemed to imbue in her - a gratitude. "I have my brother and sister, I have a roof over my head, I do have a warm bed to sleep in at night and there are people who don't have that."

The people without are the ones she wants to work with. She wants to help low-income kids go to college, or some other kind of social justice work, helping the poor, either domestically or abroad.

"I come from a family of drug addiction and alcoholism and abuse, and I want to be there for other people that are going through similar instances, other people that have experienced similar obstacles as I have," she said. "I want to be a light for them and to show them that it's possible to get yourself out. It's possible to move forward and be successful."

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