When Gisel Marmolejo, 17, was in eighth grade, she had a GPA of 3.2 and was sent to the principal’s office for misbehaving 32 times. Today, she has a 4.17 GPA and has applied to several Ivy League schools, including Columbia University.

She credits Destination Graduation, an Orange County United Way program sponsored by Edison International.

“It is a life-changer,” she said. “The program helps support kids so they don’t give up.”

Destination Graduation focuses on preparing underserved kids for college. The program also helps provide emotional support for students with difficult family situations.

In Marmolejo’s sophomore year, her parents separated due to domestic violence. Dealing with frequent police visits and a lack of financial support from her dad, her grades fell. She considered dropping her AP courses to get a part-time job.

It was her Destination Graduation teachers who kept her focused on her studies.

“My teachers were always there for me for emotional support,” she said. “They supported me when I wanted to give up.”

In early April, Marmolejo will hear back from the colleges she applied to. And on April 19, she hopes to have something to celebrate as she takes part in the Orange County United Way’s annual walk at Angel Stadium. Part of the proceeds will go towards Destination Graduation.

Joining her will be Hector Aguilar, a Southern California Edison (SCE) senior business analyst who will be part of the Edison International contingent. The company recently donated $250,000 to the nonprofit.

“It’s so important to give back,” said Aguilar, who plans to bring his wife and two-year-old son to the event. “Just knowing that you are helping people by doing something simple like going for a walk.”

Aguilar will also be representing LEAD (Latinos for Engagement, Advancement & Development), an SCE employee resource group, as this year’s president. LEAD is supporting the walk because of its focus on education and the fact that more than 80 percent of those helped by Orange County United Way are Latinos.

“Education is one of those things that will help open doors and opportunities,” he said. “People need a helping hand sometimes to get to the next level.”

According to Orange County United Way, Orange County’s dropout rate is 9.5 percent. Of the number of students who dropped out of high school in the county, 75 percent are Latinos.

Destination Graduation is working to reduce these disproportionate rates. There are currently 14 participating schools from Santa Ana, Anaheim, Garden Grove and Westminster school districts.

“This education achievement gap is fueled by family and community poverty, language and cultural barriers, lack of advocacy and limited education support outside of a stressed school system,” said Sergio Contreras, Orange County United Way­’s senior manager, education. “Destination Graduation is a proven program that we will continue to support and grow.”

Marmolejo hopes to major in international business and global affairs this fall once she graduates from Westminster High School. If she is accepted, she will be the first in her family to attend college.

“My parents are really proud,” she said. “Destination Graduation is really a big game-changer.”

To sign-up for the upcoming April 19 Walk United: www.walkunited.com/edisoninternational.