Johna Rivers spent most of her young life with the cards stacked against her.
She was put into foster care at the age of 9, and that's where she stayed until she was a legal adult.
"Everything around me was traumatic from the time I was a baby up until I was 19,” says Rivers.
Kids in front of the housing project where Rivers grew up. All photos via Extra.
But her hardships didn't stop there. Rivers was homeless for three years after she left foster care. This is an unfortunate reality for many kids who age out of the system. According to a recent NPR study, approximately 25% of former foster children become homeless after exiting foster care. The sudden absence in shelter and support also results in much higher incarceration and teen pregnancy rates.
And, not surprisingly, very few of these young people (6%) ever make it through college.
But Rivers was determined to flip the script on foster kid statistics.
She started by making education a priority.
Even though she says her high school was rated one of the worst in Los Angeles, she pushed through it and managed to graduate by 2011.
“I was extremely blessed and humbled to make it out of the environment, and be able to not allow those circumstances to define me," says Rivers.
And, thanks to the help of her mentor, Syd Stewart, she set herself up for a success in a career in the arts.
Stewart (left) and Rivers (right).
Stewart is a filmmaker and also the founder of Better Youth, a nonprofit that mentors disadvantaged youth like Rivers in media arts.
She showed Rivers her first film set over 10 years ago. “She introduced me to a whole new world that I never knew about," recalls Rivers.
Through Stewart's guidance, Rivers learned that she had not only compelling stories to tell, but a powerful voice to tell them with. Aside from her film work, Rivers is a spoken word artist who has performed all over the world.
However, she wanted to do more than just make art for the world. Following her mentor's example, Rivers decided to help others like her reach for their creative dreams too.
She co-founded the Real to Reel Global Youth Film Festival to help raise up the voices of underserved kids.
Rivers (center) with kids from the Real to Reel Film Festival.
Launched in October 2015, Real to Reel showcases films produced by youth ages 14 to 23 that shine a light on often overlooked social issues. The foster system is one of those issues — in 2017, Real to Reel's film offerings were all produced by current and former foster kids.
Rivers hopes the festival will help kids like her realize they deserve a place at the creative table. She wants to remind them that, with a little extra effort, anything they can dream up is achievable.
"You gotta put in the work, you gotta show up, you gotta believe in yourself, because if you don’t, nobody else will," says Rivers.
Rivers working on a film.
But, of course, you'll get further with people like Rivers and Stewart standing behind you. Few people know that better than Rivers, which is why she continues to give a little extra back whenever she can.
When she's not making movies, Stewart is a foster youth outreach liaison for the Spirit Awakening Foundation, which helps underserved youth find their spiritual identity through creativity. Clearly, she's made helping kids like her tell their stories a big part of her life's mission.
After all, her own story helped her realize her purpose. If she hadn't found a way to share it, she wouldn't be where she is today.
To learn more about Rivers and her festival, check out this video: