Upon release from incarceration, young people are often provided with few resources and opportunities to help them re-enter their communities. But a local program is stepping in to give them the support they need.

Founded in 2004, New Earth provides youth ages 13 to 25 the resources to create lifelong success. New Earth strives to empower youth to move toward positive and healthier life choices. 

Last Thursday, on a ride above Malibu in the Santa Monica Mountains, an intimate celebration was hosted for students who achieved a major accomplishment—graduation. Mentors gave emotional and uplifting speeches to the seven students in the program who recently graduated from high school.

The first speaker was Ledell Bernardez, New Earth administrative assistant and parent of a student who attended the program. Bernardez said she found New Earth when her son said he wanted to attend the school.

“Not only did they help my son transition back to society, they also provided him with all these different supportive resources that he was able to use and he enjoyed going there,” Bernardez said. “That was the biggest surprise—that he really enjoyed going there because of the relationship and the bond that he created with so many people there.”

Bernardez was so impressed with what the program provided for her son, she wanted to complete her degree and intern there and has been the administrative assistant for three years.

“When I came in as an intern, I just fit in so well with everything ... because I felt like if they can do this for my kid, I can [help] somebody else,” Bernardez said. “New Earth is an amazing place. I would refer this place for anyone who’s struggling with their kid that’s looking for a place for them where they can feel welcomed and belong.”

Bernardez said last year, when her son graduated from the program, they organized a drive-by graduation ceremony at the New Earth Arts and Leadership Center in Culver City. This year, they were able to host a graduation and dinner for the students at  Rancho del Cielo in Malibu. 

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Two recent graduates from the New Earth program

Jill Palethorpe and Sparky Greene, owners of Rancho del Cielo, opened their doors to host the first New Earth graduation ceremony.

“It feels wonderful because that’s what this property was meant for, it’s a huge property, with a glorious view and a beautiful garden that we have brought back from the [Woolsey] Fire and I feel like we should share it,” Palethorpe said. “And these kids—they’ve had a rough time and they need something beautiful in their lives, so we’ll keep doing this graduation every year.”

Poems of inspiration were shared from former students and advisers gave congratulatory speeches.

Vanessa Escalante graduated from high school through the program and said it was a great opportunity for anyone to experience.

“At first I didn’t think it was going to make any difference or changes in my life, especially because I was in such a dark hole, but ... now I feel happy, they helped me out a lot,” Escalante said, adding, “All the programs they have inside and the people here actually really care about you and I feel like today was one of the best days ever. It feels good to see everybody happy for you.”

Escalante is going to Santa Monica Community College in the fall.

Selamawit Mekonen gave an emotional speech about student Ady Cruz, who graduated through the program.

“Ady Cruz is the perfect example of a true success story,” Mekonen said. “It was apparent to me that her life was so bright, that she had forgotten her road and to walk with you on this journey back to your path, to your true self, has been everything to me. What Ady has accomplished in such a short time is just incredible.”

Mekonen continued to recognize Cruz and her classmates and reminded them to celebrate victories and keep on striving for success.

“I started becoming a new person because of the program,” Cruz said. “I noticed it helped me a lot and it will help a lot of other students that seek to be good in school and life in general.”

New Earth serves around 800 young people each year, most of whom are under 18. According to the organization’s website, 93 percent remain free from system involvement recidivism.

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