There's a reason Deutron Kebebew chose to work with fathers.
Not only does he want to be one some day, but he wants to make sure no other children have to face what he did when, after arriving in California from Ethiopia, he was placed in foster care in his early teens.
Now the project director for the Santa Cruz County PAPÁS group, which advocates for co-parenting and helps fathers build strong relationships with their children, the UC Santa Cruz graduate draws on first-hand experience to create his own brand of social justice.
For those efforts, Kebebew has been named winner of the 2012 Tony Hill Award, which he will receive on his 35th birthday at the university's Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation on Thursday. Renowned poet and activist Nikki Giovanni is the headline speaker, but Kebebew will also say a few words.
"It's a very big honor, and I am humbled and honored," Kebebew said. "And it will mean a lot to me if I accept the award on behalf of the community because the work I do is part of a larger cause. If everyone becomes part of the cause, we can achieve what we are going after."
In its fourth year, the award pays tribute to the legacy of Tony Hill, who worked tirelessly to create awareness in Santa Cruz County around social justice issues before his death in 2007. Kebebew met Hill only once, for two hours, during one of Hill's "True Colors" presentations designed to challenge power structures and people's prejudices.
"I know (about his legacy) from the community and the work that he's done because I have been getting a flood of email about him, people telling me how they knew him," Kebebew said. "This man was a jewel of the community."
Just as Hill overcame the challenges of being bused to white schools in New York City shortly after court-ordered desegregation, Kebebew overcame the obstacles that faced him not long after arriving in the U.S. at age 12 to be with his father, who had fled Ethiopia "for political reasons," as Kebebew put it.
Because he was going to the library every day, rather than school, to improve his English, and because his father worked late, Kebebew said a neighbor contracted authorities, who eventually moved Kebebew into the foster system for about five years. He said his father didn't resist the arrangement.
"I got to see the suffering and pain a lot of foster youth have who come through the system, and they came from broken homes," he said. "Somebody has to do something about this."
Kebebew, who a 2003 engineering graduate who attended Kresge College, said many foster children, or youth who end up incarcerated or dropping out of high school, come from homes with absentee dads. While he is still working toward reconnecting with his own father - his mother in Ethiopia died five years ago - he is focused on work.
"When those stats become low enough or at zero, that's when the work is done," he said.
Corrine Miller, director of UCSC's Services for Transfer and Re-entry Students, or STARS, applauds Kebebew for his ongoing work with the Smith Renaissance Society, a program for former foster youth at the university. He created the society's College Camp as a student - the program brings local foster kids to campus for two days to stay in residence halls, eat in dining halls and drop in to classes - and he organizes it yet today.
"He definitely rose as one of the most outstanding leaders we've had," Miller said.
By J.M. BROWN -- Santa Cruz Sentinel