Social expectations predict that orphans who spent their first 14 years home-schooled by a single mother in Section 8 housing will not "make it." My very existence defies this prediction.

When my mom died of breast cancer, I was 15 and wanted to live with extended family. I wanted my aunt and uncle to fill in the parental shoes. I wanted to know the heritage I came from.

Instead they gave me something so much better than anything I could have ever asked for. They gave me my own history, my own heritage. They gave me the keys to see how I fit into my own story.

After my mother passed away, my family took me on a tour at Hanna Boys Center. They told me that if I chose to go to Hanna, it would be the best thing I could do at the time. I disagreed. It was suggested that I should apply anyway. Within five months, I moved my entire life from Santa Rosa out to the Sonoma Valley, where Hanna is located.

Living at Hanna Boys Center, I made my own stories. With the support of the staff and the time living with my peers, I began to create myself as an individual.

After I graduated high school, I began my college career at Sonoma State University. I am now 21 years old and mere days away from graduating with a bachelor's degree in English. In a month, I will be moving to Oklahoma for graduate school.

Hanna Boys Center has become something more in my life than a place I lived for 2? years. Hanna has become for me what a home is for many others. There are always new boys and staff, but the purpose never changes. The employees truly care for the students they work with — current and former. Without the support of the center, I would not be where I am. I think Hanna Boys Center is often overlooked in the beautiful community of Sonoma County.

The summer after my sophomore year of college, I wanted to buy a car. Father John Crews let me borrow his car to shop around. The husband of a Hanna Center staff member went with me. When I found one I liked, one of the child care workers, who was relatively new at the center, called in a favor and got me a CarFax report on the vehicle. Another staff member taught me how to bargain, and I brought the asking price down from $3,000 to the price I actually paid: $2,200.

That's just one story. I could go on for days telling you how amazing the Hanna staff members are and what a difference they have made in my life. I could tell you about the struggles they have supported me through and the joys they have celebrated with me.

When I came to Sonoma State University, I made an effort to get involved. I have held a number of positions. I am proud of everything I have learned. I have learned to seek counsel from many sources. I have learned that silence is OK. I have learned that I cannot take on too many tasks. I have learned how to manage my time. I have learned that I have just barely scraped the top of the bucket of knowledge. I have learned that I am in charge of my story. I can make or create anything in my life.

As I continue on, I know that I have the support of the staff at Hanna, my friends and mentors from Sonoma State — and my family.

That is my story, and I wish to challenge the readers. Make a difference. Some way, some how, have a positive effect on the world. Because you don't know what small thing you do can make a big difference in someone's life.

Nathanial Garrod is graduating with a bachelor's degree in English (creative writing) from Sonoma State University. He will be the student commencement speaker at his graduation on May 28. After graduation he is moving to Oklahoma State University to study College Student Development. Email him at nathanial.garrod@gmail.com.