Actress and comedian Tiffany Haddish is on a roll, with a string of high profile film and television roles as her career blossoms. But Haddish, 39, remembers tougher times.
When she was younger, she spent time in the foster system, before later becoming homeless. Now, she makes a point of giving back, offering help and encouragement to youth today in the foster and juvenile systems who are going through struggles not unlike what she faced.
"I'm really super proud of you guys," Haddish said at an event titled "Success is Our Future," a dinner celebrating the accomplishments of youth in the juvenile and foster systems.
"I, too, was a former foster youth," Haddish said. "And I understand the enormity of graduating and being celebrated and want these kids to know there is hope for them."
One of the celebrated graduates on the night said, "I know she was not born with a silver spoon. It makes me proud for me to hear from her, motivate in a positive way."
NBC Los Angeles is keeping the identities of the honorees confidential as they transition to the next phase of their lives.
"It's like a restart of everything," a female honoree said. "Adulthood now."
"As an adult, I've had struggles, but nothing like when I was under 19," Haddish said.
"It was great that she came here to celebrate foster youth," Liliana Patty Flores, a foster graduate, said.
Now 23 and a University of California graduate and bound for law school, Flores is a foster success story in her own right, after her struggles began with an abusive environment at home.
"You put all these labels on me—delinquent," Flores said. "I'm more than that."
Flores found her voice when she was told in a group home that she could not have a hair comb.
"I challenged them, told the judge and he got me a hair comb," Flores said.
Terri McDonald, the chief probation officer, said, "She's learning how her message can be used to help the system improve."
McDonald acknowledges the system has faced criticism—recently vowing to phase out pepper spray discipline in juvenile detention facilities. McDonald cites progress in reducing the number of detained juveniles with an emphasis on community placement, such as the group homes where most of the youth at the dinner have been.
"It was good rehab for me," Jesse Velazquez, another foster graduate, said. "I learned lots of coping skills."
Velazquez, who is now 21, is another graduate of the juvenile system and now in his final year at Rio Hondo College, making use of independent living assistance and looking to move on to a four year college to study psychology.
"Right now I'm working hard for scholarship, so more doors can open up," Valazquez said.
Haddish said, "The system was not that great when I was in, but I had some good people around me."
Those good people included the counselor who famously steered the young Haddish away from psychiatric therapy and into a comedy camp. Her talent and hard work took over from there.
"If you do something everyday, you can achieve," Haddish said. "It may not be exactly what you want, but you're going to achieve it."
In addition to her time and her words, Haddish also brought some tangibles donated by her She Ready Foundation, including gift cards and suitcases for all of the graduates. More than most, Haddish can appreciate the significance of luggage as someone who knows what it's like to be 13 and have to carry all her belongings in a trash bag.
"You're a traveler on an adventure, not garbage," Haddish said. "Now you have to go somewhere with a purpose."