by Christin Ayers and Jennifer Mistrot
(KPIX 5) -- The tragedy was splashed across the pages of local newspapers and covered by television news stations. Two tires were blown on a car headed to Los Angeles. Kimberly Ramirez Gonzalez was in that car and she was just 13 years old. Her younger sister Rosa was thrown from the vehicle as it flipped end over end. Rosa died on impact. Ramirez Gonzalez remembers the day like it was yesterday, the chaos of the accident scene and the grief and confusion that followed.
"Rosa and my grandmother passed away that day," recalled Ramirez Gonzalez. "I didn't even really know what death was. I remember sitting in my hospital room and crying and praying to my sister because I just couldn't comprehend that she was gone forever."
LEARN MORE: Students Rising Above
Ramirez Gonzalez had always been the caretaker in her family, and the de-facto parent for her siblings. On the day of the accident her father was driving. Now his intense grief, compounded by his drug abuse and a family dynamic fraught with domestic violence, consumed Ramirez Gonzalez. The tragedy and responsibility stuck with her like a shadow, sending the teenager into a downward spiral into alcoholism.
"That turned me onto drinking at the age of 13," said Ramirez Gonzalez. "By the time I was 14, I realized I was an alcoholic and I started going to AA meetings."
Ramirez Gonzalez says she soon recognized she was going down the same path as her dad. So, wanting to set a good example for her little brothers, the teen said she did the only thing she felt sure would change her life.
She applied for a scholarship with Students Rising Above. It's a story Ramirez Gonzalez recently shared with 16,000 young people as she stepped foot out onto a Los Angeles stage. Behind her, projected onto a screen, was a childhood photo of her beloved sister Rosa.
"I applied for a college scholarship with Students Rising Above," Ramirez Gonzalez told the cheering WE Day crowd. "We all had hope but didn't expect I'd get the scholarship. So when I did, I was ecstatic."
With Students Rising Above, or SRA as it is commonly known, Ramirez Gonzalez had found her voice, and the courage to share her life story at WE Day, an annual conference that celebrates young people who are fighting for social change. She also spoke at a TED talk a few years back about the meaning of success, telling the crowd there to, "Help someone, inspire someone, change someone's life. Because that is what success is. Success is helping other people."
They are words that Ramirez Gonzalez lives by. The college junior mentors the young women of Girls United, an organization she started as a student at Napa Valley High School. And she continues to 'parent' and inspire her younger brothers, one of whom - Pablo - is now a Students Rising Above Scholar himself.
"I want to be testament of 'it will happen,'" said Ramirez Gonzalez. "It sucks now, and its bad and it's a dark place, but it will get better."
for more features.