On Nov. 14, the Children's Defense Fund held a Beat the Odds awards dinner in Washington, D.C. with special guest Renée Zellweger and co-chairs Ali Wentworth and her husband George Stephanopoulos.
The fund launched the Beat the Odds program in 1990 to celebrate young people who do well despite poverty, violence, homelessness, family breakup or substance abuse — circumstances that make even the smallest achievements difficult.
Students are honored at special awards ceremonies and receive a significant scholarship award and other prizes. Beat the Odds events are held in communities across the country, and the five high school students just honored in Washington are extraordinary young people with inspiring stories:
At age 13, Chloe was uprooted from her home in Florida and moved to her aunt's house in South Carolina with her younger sister after their mother received a Naval deployment to the Washungton D.C. area. Eventually, Chloe and her sister joined their mother, but as she continually struggled to make ends meet, these became just the first in a series of evictions and regular moves for the family.
Soon they began keeping everything they owned in boxes because they never knew when the next move was coming. After the family became homeless, the county placed them in a hotel room that was an hour-long bus ride from Chloe's school. Despite her challenging and constantly shifting circumstances, Chloe has maintained a positive outlook and a rare sense of confidence. She is a member of the National Honor Society and chooses to consider poverty her motivation instead of her excuse.
Michael lives by a motto: "You can follow the destiny you were born into or you can carve your own path."
Looking at his family environment, Michael's destiny didn't seem very bright. His mother suffers from schizophrenia, and his father conducted illegal activities to support his drug and alcohol use, including selling the family's food stamps.
At one point Michael's dad exploited Michael's computer talents by forcing him to choose between forging checks for him or going without food. But after his parents were caught cashing duplicated checks, Michael was sent to live with supportive legal guardians who have helped him use his once-exploited talents to start a technology club at his high school and become the Webmaster for the Key Club. Michael dreams of becoming a politician so he can improve the lives of other people stuck in situations similar to the ones he's faced.
Natasha grew up in Jamaica without knowing her mother, who lived in the United States. Her father was often absent, too, leaving Natasha and her younger brother for days or months at a time to take care of themselves, and when he returned he was sexually abusive.
Natasha then lived at a facility for girls, with an unkind neighbor and with the neighbor's sexually threatening husband before her mother finally brought her and her brother to the United States. But her mother was in an abusive relationship here that affected the entire family. Child Protective Services eventually intervened after an episode of family violence, and Natasha went to live with her grandmother.
Now, with a 3.8 GPA, she wants to use her education to empower young girls to escape conditions similar to the ones she endured. Natasha says without her painful memories, she wouldn't have learned the valuable lessons that have taught her how to become forgiving, strong and loving and given her the courage to go after her dreams.
When Charlette was 5, she lost her father to AIDS. At age 12, a family friend raped her. Over the next few years, more traumatic events destabilized her life even further. First, her family was evicted from their home. Then, one of her friends was shot at school. Next, students at her school were displaced when the building had to undergo a long mercury decontamination process. Finally, her family moved in with her grandmother, who suffers from Alzheimer's.
But even while carrying the burden of her personal life, Charlette has refocused on her academics at a new charter school and become a classroom leader. Throughout it all, her mother has been her source of strength, and she taught Charlette that if you can't be strong for yourself, you can't be strong for anyone else. This past summer, Charlette learned her mother has lung cancer — so now Charlette wants to be strong for her.
I am so proud of these young people. They and the thousands of young people like them — many all around us and struggling quietly each day to stay on track and do the right thing — deeply deserve our recognition, praise and support.
Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund and its Action Council.