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Once Homeless Peninsula Student Comes Full Circle, Helping Others Find Housing

SAN MATEO (CBS SF) -- Nathan Porras helps homeless people on the peninsula find housing, working for the Innvision Shelter network, as their volunteer Coordinator.

But when we first met Nathan six years ago, he was basically homeless. He has come full circle and a perfect employee for the job because he understands what his clients going through.

"Instead of being that kid dealing with those issues, I'm now that man that's been helping," he says. "It's hard for them to know exactly what is going on in their lives but I try to be that beacon of light for them."

We first met Nathan, when he was a 17 years old high school senior at Aragon High in San Mateo. He was totally on his own financially and working 20 hours a week at a restaurant to support himself.  No welfare, No government support.

"I support myself. I work hard for my money," he explained. "I worry about the phone ill, car insurance, gas, food clothing, where to live, and your regular shampoo, soap, all that stuff."

We watched him seat people at the Red Robin Restaurant where he worked, then give them their menus. "Its hard. It's not an easy job but I get it done because I have to make a living. "

His parents were in and out of his life. He was living with friends. "I'm 17 years old right now, and I've probably moved 20 times," he said- sometimes living with relatives, one parent or the other. There was never enough money. Both parents left the children at different times. Through all the chaos, he helped raise his little sister. Eventually they had to be split up and she moved in with other relatives:

But when they were together with their parents, he remembered the constant fighting, "me and my sister would go into the room and lock the door and hold each other and tell each other that everything was going to be all right." It was scary, he says.

School was his one level playing field.

"I found hope in the classroom, he told me. "Although it is all a challenge to me right now, I know in the end, it's all going to pay off."

His teacher at Aragon, Nicole Elenz-Martin, was shocked when she first found out what Nathan was going through. "What Nathan has had to experience is completely uncommon. It's not something any student can imagine. He doesn't talk about it; he doesn't want to have others pity him because of it."

When she was helping him fill out college applications, he wasn't sure what address to put down. "Maybe we should put this one," Ms. Elenz-Martin says she would suggest. "Then a couple weeks later, we are changing the address again. The moving was very strenuous, but he would never complain."

She remembers one time, 'it's so hard being an adult. That's what he told me last year when he was 16. He says, it's so had being an adult. I have to go to school. I have to do soccer practice. I have to go to work to make money so I can go home and give food to my cousins. I have to pick up another cousin to make sure he has something to eat."

But he did well in school, maintaining a B+ grade average. "Nathan's resilience is something I've not seen in any other student," Ms. Elenz-Martin told us.

But college was another matter until he was accepted into Students Rising Above, or SRA.

"Before I started SRA, admits Nathan now, "I thought there was no chance that I was gonna be a college graduate."

What made the difference for him was his SRA, Lisa Kossiver. She also happened to be a teacher at his high school, so when he was accepted into the program. We met with the two of them at Lisa's house over tea.

"In the beginning I made him meet me every week," Lisa says, with Nathan laughing by her side.  "I knew you had it in you and I think I just felt like you were somehow going down a wrong path." And so, she pulled him back on to the right one. He admits he slacked off in his senior year. And he says, "I love Lisa like a mother."

But it was clearly a relationship that required work and patience for an advisor, for those moments Nathan went "kicking and screaming", as Lisa puts it. Speaking to Nathan, she says, "I think part of being an advisor is being a mom but I think I was more that mom (with you) because of the fact that I needed to be. I needed to have the tough love along with the advisor love and I had to have both."

Looking at each other, Lisa asked, "how often did we talk?"

"almost every week," was the answer.

"Every week, checking up"

"And just making sure I was going to class," laughs Nathan.

Lisa says that was true, just like a mother would.  In 2014 he graduated from Sonoma State University with a degree in Economics.

"The reward, of watching him walk across that stage," says Lisa as she was overwhelmed by tears. "When they called his name it was like I couldn't scream loud enough, or I know he couldn't her me because it was such a big place, but if he could have been right there it would have been the loudest scream."

There were more significant accomplishments for Nathan as well. He always loved his parents, but before, he says, "I blamed them for everything I had gone through, all the pain, all the stress, all the things that I couldn't accomplish. "

But over the years, he did a lot of thinking and growing. "At one point, I just realized that the only person holding me back was myself. And I forgave them. Both my parents, I forgave my parents."

It lifted a weight off his shoulders, and has allowed him to begin a truly new life.

"I finally started realizing I could be happy," Nathan says.

"I could do more than just dwell on my past and instead "look at who I can become."

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