“College forced me to grow up quickly,” said Deonte Lang, a student at Loyola Marymount University. “Because as a first-generation college student from a low-income household with only one parent facing a $50,000-$60,000 price tag each year, I had a lot of things against me.”

If you asked Lang 10 years ago if he would go to college, he probably would’ve said he hadn’t given it much thought, or maybe even a flat out “no.” ‘But with the help of Communities in Schools of Los Angeles (CISLA), not only will Lang be graduating college, he also will be graduating with honors.

It wasn’t always easy, though. Throughout his years at the university, Lang held two jobs simultaneously, sometimes even three.

“I put my blood, sweat and tears into earning this degree that I will soon be getting,” Lang said. “I scraped myself on campus so I count that as blood.”

Lang’s presence and moving speech at the CISLA annual cocktail gala, held at CAA President Richard Lovett’s house, represented what CISLA does every day with 12 schools in Los Angeles – guide students down the proper path by building strong, meaningful relationships.

This year’s CISLA cocktail gala honored Dana Henry, Donna Weiss and Michelle Kydd Lee, three women who help CISLA see its success stories grow.

What makes the trials and tribulations worthwhile for CISLA Program Director Dana Henry is watching success stories mentor and advocate for other students who used to be just like them, she said. Because students can fall through the cracks, Henry knows that a key part of the program is to fully understand the ins-and-outs of the school system.

“It’s about learning these systems and how to navigate them, advocating on behalf of someone and then getting that person to advocate for somebody else,” Henry said. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

Although advocacy, mentoring and intervention are three pillars of CISLA’s mission, building relationships is really the crux of the nonprofit’s mission.

“There’s something really unique about having somebody on a campus who’s not there to judge you, not there to grade you, but is solely there for your success,” said Weiss, founding chairman and national board member. “That’s what the site coordinators are there for.”

“It’s relationships that change lives, not programs,” added CISLA Executive Director Deborah Marcus.

Although Kydd Lee, chief innovation officer of CAA, was honored for her involvement last night, she also attributed the org’s success to the site coordinators, leaders, principals and other educators who have all affected change in students’ lives.

“Our kids are going to be ok because all they need is one. One person to believe in them,” Lee said.