05/01/2013 02:29 pm ET Updated Jul 01, 2013

The Overcoming the Odds Awards: Recognizing a Different Kind of Courage

Imagine going back daily to a place where you are a failure. There, others move forward with their achievements lauded, while your self-esteem sinks, sometimes weighted down by accusations of laziness. This is a small window into the experience that many struggling students face every day at school.

Often, these are students facing obstacles that significantly tip the odds towards failure or worse. They are kids with disabilities, who still face some of the highest rates of school failure and dropout. They are kids with profound medical and physical issues including childhood cancer or traumatic brain injury. They are kids who live far from an idyllic childhood in households traumatized by domestic violence, substance abuse or poverty or in temporary places in the homeless or foster care systems.

Defying all predictions, some of these students overcome the odds. To recognize and honor their success, Student Advocacy--a nonprofit providing educational advocacy services--created the Overcoming the Odds Awards in 1996. This spring, we are honoring four amazing youth, who all happen to be seniors:
Patrick Devir, Eastchester High School, NY
Tabitha Glashen, White Plains High School, NY
Jimmy Sullivan, Dobbs Ferry High School, NY
Jillian Schurmacher, North Salem High School, NY

Patrick was classified as autistic at an early age. He struggled with social skills, staying focused, staying on task, writing and inferential language tasks. He required a range of services including the assistance of a dedicated aide. Now, he is experiencing tremendous academic success even succeeding in college level courses. From his early forays into the school's social life as a member of the ski club, where he spent time alone on the slopes, he has grown into an active member of three varsity teams: Cross County, Indoor and Outdoor Track. This year, he even performed the opening solo on his guitar at the school pep rally. Patrick will attend college next year and hopes to become a physical therapist, possibly related to sports.

Tabitha's childhood was shadowed by her mother's mental illness. She and her younger brother contended with a single parent living through paranoia and auditory hallucinations that eventually cost their mother the loss of her job and then their home. Several years of homelessness ended for Tabitha when she entered foster care. Then her conflicted relationship with her mother abruptly ceased when her mother was murdered. Somehow, Tabitha managed to stay focused on school work and will graduate from high school this spring. She hopes to become an attorney to help children living in foster care.

Jimmy entered high school believing that he would not attend college since he would never pass the state tests required to earn a high school diploma. His speech and language issues made it extremely difficult for Jimmy to read so his skills were far below grade level. Now he is ending high school in a way he never would have predicted. He has passed all of the state tests required for graduation and even received a 94 on the U.S. history test. In college next year, he will start working towards a teaching degree so that he can help students who have a disability.

When still a toddler, a high fever caused Jillian to suffer a febrile seizure that lasted more than an hour. The trauma to her brain caused lasting damage affecting both speech and learning. Jillian entered school full of anxiety. She was extremely shy and only interacted with adults and family members, and was even anxious in those situations. She had to work countless hours after school and over the summer on basic reading and writing skills. Now Jillian is completing an internship as a veterinarian technician and is actively involved in the school community including participation in the school musical. She plans to attend college to become a veterinary technician.

These are young people who pursue their education with a different kind of courage. Each one will be honored with an Overcoming the Odds Awards, which will be presented on May 16th at an awards dinner in Tarrytown NY. Funds raised at the dinner support the scholarship program and Student Advocacy's work throughout the year advocating to obtain the educational support that struggling children need.

View the winners' photos and congratulate them here. Support the OTO program, purchase tickets or contribute to the scholarship fund here.