I’m often asked, what’s wrong with our children? Too often we focus on the negative without celebrating young people who, despite the odds unfairly stacked against them, overcome great adversity, demonstrate academic excellence, and give back to their community and country. Each year, the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) takes time to honor examples of these inspiring youths through our Beat the Odds® scholarship and leadership development program. Each student receives a $10,000 scholarship, a laptop computer, guidance through the college admissions process, and an invitation to join CDF’s leadership training programs—putting them on the path to college, successful adulthood, and sustained child advocacy.
Beat the Odds celebrations are held annually across the country. On November 15th we will honor five high school students from Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia; on December 1st five in Los Angeles; and on December 14th five in New York City. All are succeeding and moving on to college despite overwhelming challenges. This year, CDF’s state offices honored 19 resilient students in Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and New Orleans. Since 1990 when CDF began Beat the Odds celebrations, about 700 youths have won scholarships and I could not be prouder of them. They are lawyers and educators and college professors and teachers and Peace Corps volunteers, and outstanding citizens. They make clear that no one has a right to give up on any child and that all of us lose when we waste the fine minds and great potential of millions of children every year. Their lives also make clear what a difference one or a few caring adults can make.
Thurman Anderson’s mother, a high school dropout, rarely worked. To provide for his siblings, Thurman sold candy and then drugs while still in elementary school. When he was nine years old, Thurman and his siblings were removed from their home and separated by the foster care system. Four years and five foster home placements later, Thurman met Jon and Nia West-Bey, who became his adoptive parents. He described them as the first people who could “provide a home where I could finally find my place and where people wanted me.” Thurman is now a student at Washington Latin Public Charter School where he is passionate about being a leader and mentors fellow students. Thurman is excited that he will be the first in his biological family to attend and graduate from college.
Andrew Finein came into the world facing daunting odds. He was born mute, unable to utter a sound until he was two and a half years old. Diagnosed with a host of mental and physical problems, doctors told his mother he would never be able to care for himself. Andrew’s early years were spent in therapy learning to speak and to do basic tasks like tying his shoes. But years of hard work and therapy paid off, and today, 17-year-old Andrew is already taking several college level classes and excels academically. Adults who know Andrew marvel at his positive attitude and strong work ethic.
As a child, Leland Kraatz’s home life was filled with anger and despair. His alcoholic father terrorized the whole family. When Leland was 10, his father was arrested after Leland’s two sisters revealed he had been abusing them. Leland’s mother became severely depressed and struggled to make ends meet. Home-schooled for years, the children were left to educate themselves. By the time Child Protective Services intervened, Leland had never had formal schooling and was years behind academically. He and his sister Chelsea moved in with their aunt and uncle. “For the first time in my life I was truly part of a real, functioning family the way it should be,” said Leland. Since then, he has worked extremely hard to adjust academically and socially. Although he entered formal school for the first time in ninth grade, he has maintained a 3.82 grade point average, tutors other students, and is thriving in his new life despite his tumultuous childhood.
Anh Luong is the youngest of five children born to Vietnamese immigrants. She grew up in extreme poverty in an unstable home with parents who battled substance abuse. When Anh was nine years old, she was assaulted by a family friend. She stopped going to school and failed fourth grade. She and her two older brothers then bounced back and forth between foster care and their parents’ home for the next few years. She remembers vividly the fear and despair she felt during this time. Anh said she wanted to “give up on life. I began thinking that my life was cursed.” But she didn’t give up, and today, Anh is a hard working senior on the path to college. “I have learned that if I share my story and share the struggles that I’ve been through, then I can reach out to others and help them to overcome as well,” she said.
When Mustafaa Nuraldin’s teachers describe him, they paint the picture of an ideal student—thoughtful, serious, and polite—but just a few years ago Mustafaa was failing most of his classes. A precocious child, Mustafaa learned to read early and excelled in elementary school but a hostile environment in a new middle school disturbed him. He described it as “rowdy and violent, so much so that metal detectors were necessary. In addition to the crazed student body, there were a number of teachers who didn’t do their job.” Mustafaa started skipping school, choosing to read at a local bookstore. After his mother and grandmother enrolled Mustafaa at Washington Latin Charter School where teachers have encouraged his love of reading and creative writing, his attitude toward school changed completely. He plans to study philosophy or creative writing in college and is described by one of his teachers as “an old soul, a wise young man, a student with perfect moral pitch.”
All of the stories over the years including this year’s Washington, D.C. Beat the Odds scholarship recipients described here show the remarkable resiliency of children and the power of determination and hard work. They also show how much a caring adult can make a difference. Beat the Odds celebrations send a clear message to young people that we see and care about their plight, and understand what it takes to succeed in school and life when faced with huge obstacles. Millions of children struggling against the odds can succeed if each of us reaches out to and celebrates them rather than write them off as failures. To learn more about how you can support young people at Beat the Odds events around the country, go to the Children’s Defense Fund web site. In a Thanksgiving season when many Americans pause to count their blessings, it should also be a season of giving back and sharing with those less fortunate. You can also help by being a voice for voiceless children. Tell your Senators and Representatives that you want children protected from budget cuts and you want Congress to invest in their health, education, and well-being. Together as a community of caring adults we can and must change the odds for all children.
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