RICHMOND (KPIX) -- It's quiet in Meuy Phan's kitchen, even when she and her parents are all bustling around. They are both deaf, and Phan is their connection to the outside world. As a family, they communicate in sign but whenever they need something outside the home, Phan is their interpreter, guide and negotiator. She calls herself the "keyholder."
"My responsibilities at home are basically being a parent," Phan said. "I'm like a parent to my parents."
Angelica Arriaga, Phan's college counselor says she has to remind herself that Phan is only in high school because she is so mature.
"Whenever something needs to be handled, like a doctor's appointment, Meuy is the one who handles that," Arriaga said. "She will call the doctor's office and set up the appointment and then go along with her parents because she needs to translate for them." Arriaga knows Phan has sometimes had to miss school to help her parents.
As they get older, Phan says their English skills are slipping. Her father was born in Laos and her mother in Cambodia, and so they face cultural issues as well. Their disabilities and cultural differences marginalize and isolate them.
"The hardest part of taking care of my folks would be trying to translate to them over and over and they still don't understand," Phan said. "They don't know exactly what's going on and I have to explain it to them so many different ways until they understand it."
Her mom is mute as well. Phan says "she can't speak which makes it difficult for her. Sometimes she's scared to be by herself."
Her extra responsibilities at home have given Phan a confidence that is evident the first time you meet her. "She's so bold," says Arriaga, "she's just a little firecracker. She speaks her mind, she doesn't hesitate and she's not shy."
But it took confidence for Phan to venture into the College and Career Center at Richmond High. She never expected to go to college until she got to know Arriaga who planted the seed.
"At Richmond High, kids worry about not being able to afford it," Phan said. "Having to take out loans ... But when you walk into that College Career Center, the people that are in there, they change your whole mindset about it."
Not all of Richmond is poor, but in Central Richmond there are areas of significant poverty--some with rates as high as 59% living below the federal poverty line.
At Phan's school, 77 percent of the students are eligible for the reduced or free lunch program. And all the kids know the reputation that central Richmond has for crime.
Its violent crime rate is more than double the national average.
"The problem in Richmond," Phan said, "is too many people dying, not enough people graduating."
This is the backdrop for Arriaga's program: College Is Real. It creates a very real poverty of expectation.
Arriaga spells out some staggering numbers: "the graduating class that Meuy is a part of, there were 440 kids last year in that class and now it's down to 352 students."
Phan explains the numbers this way: "in this school, a lot of people put themselves down. They feel like they can't get anywhere in life."
But she feels it does not have to be that way. "The mentality here is that its basically people don't want to go (to college) until their eyes are opened," she said, "until people realize that it could really happen in Richmond High."
And for Phan, it will. She has a very practical reason for going to college. "I'm tired of having to depend on social security and food stamps," she said. " I feel like that's not good and I want to give myself a better life and my parents a better life."
Because she can't afford a computer or Internet at home, Phan stays late in the college center to do her homework and use the computer. She has almost perfect grades, but Arriaga knows the extra work that requires.
When Phan has to type up a paper "she will sit in the career center for hours until she's done typing it," Arriga said. "Until then, she hand writes all her papers."
Phan and her family live in the projects. She worries about their safety and how isolated her parents will be when she goes to college.
She has tears in her eyes as she says, "My biggest concern is I'm scared to leave my parents. And I'm scared that life is going to be different. That they're going to struggle even more, but then again, I need to do this for myself."
Perhaps more important she adds, if she doesn't go to college, "we're going to keep living like this forever."
"She's always talking about how she wants to help them (her parents) out financially," Arriaga said. "All I can think of is how selfless she is to really take on that role without complaining or without thinking, my life is so difficult."
Already, Phan is making plans to have other relatives help out her parents when she goes to Cal State Northridge this fall. She wants to be nurse.
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