If you want to hear about a drug crime or armed robbery by a teen, listen to the 11:00 p.m. news on most nights or go to the Metro section of most newspapers. But if you want to hear about exemplary or ennobling behavior by young people, you may have to do some searching. It is unfortunate that so many images of our youth in popular culture are negative-objects in rap videos or young people just behaving stupidly.
The truth is that many children and teens are living positive and productive lives. Some are prevailing in the face of unimaginable adversity. To recognize and celebrate the achievement of just few outstanding young people from a pool of many who are nominated or apply, the Children’s Defense Fund started the Beat the Odds® scholarship program in 1990 as part of the Black Community Crusade for Children. Our goal then as now has been to affirm the success of teens who are overcoming tremendous obstacles in their lives while working hard, demonstrating academic excellence, and contributing to their communities.
Each year, CDF national and state offices select and recognize four or five high school seniors for their heroic achievements while triumphing over immense challenges. Each honoree receives a cash scholarship and a new laptop computer. Houston, Texas and Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota held Beat the Odds celebrations in March. Since 1990, CDF has recognized and encouraged approximately 570 Beat the Odds honorees to become leaders and professionals in a variety of fields, as well as advocates for children and champions of social justice.
Beat the Odds honoree Mohamed Ibrahim Mohamed was forced to be a child soldier in Somalia by warlords who also stole his family’s land. After five years, he escaped and walked for a month toward the Kenyan border. After a miraculous reunion with his family, his father was killed by Somali warlords and his mother by bandits in Kenya. At 16, Mohamed became responsible for his five younger brothers. Since his uncle arranged for them to come to the United States less than a year ago, Mohamed has strived to master English, has taken extra courses at school in Minneapolis and has found time to tutor younger students. He has been accepted to St. Cloud University and plans to become a heart surgeon. Eventually, he aspires to expand education and health care in Somalia and work to bring an end to the use of child soldiers in Africa.
Tanya Allen, a high school senior in St. Paul, has prevailed against crushing poverty, a violent alcoholic father, the stress of her mother’s recurring brain tumor and the death of her grandmother, who nurtured her as a young child. She was also molested by a non-family member. Tanya rose above these daunting difficulties to excel in school, maintaining a 3.77 grade point average. She has a number of part-time jobs and volunteers at her church and with the Girl Scouts. She holds a black belt in karate and conducts a Kung Fu class for younger children. This summer, she will travel to Europe as a People to People Ambassador. Tanya will enter the University of Minnesota in the fall and plans to become a dentist.
When Anosha Azeemi was 14, she, her mother and three siblings fled Afghanistan after the Taliban murdered every male member of her family. She had no formal schooling for six years because girls and women were barred from education. When she came to the United States five years ago, she spoke four languages, but no English. Adjusting to her new life was difficult. Classmates taunted her, and her brother was beaten up on his second night in Houston. She began her freshman year at the YES College Prep School with a third grade education. Having been denied schooling for years in Afghanistan, Anosha spent every spare minute studying to catch up while working 40 hours a week at a shoe store to help support the family.
Other equally inspiring honorees this year are Fanny Briceno, Cortney Gee, Ngan Ho and Zachary Menk in Texas; and Jacqueline Bonilla and Choua Yang in Minnesota.
We all know young people who are thriving academically, contributing to their communities and serving as role models to younger children. They deserve our active encouragement and support. We must be mindful, however, of the many others who find the conditions in which they live overwhelming. Too many young people come from poor families who are struggling to meet their most basic needs. They may witness or experience violence in their homes and have no one to protect or nurture them. They walk to school through dangerous neighborhoods only to arrive in classrooms where teachers have low expectations for their success. These young people often have no place to feel safe or be smart—and their calls for help are ignored. We must support them as well, by fighting to provide opportunities so they can bloom with excellent schools and health care facilities and effective child service agencies.
But for now, if you’re depressed about the “if it bleeds, it leads” 11:00 o’clock news, tell your media leaders to start reporting on hope. And take solace in the knowledge that young people all across the country are beating the odds. And that’s something we can stand up and cheer about! For more information on CDF’s Beat the Odds Scholarship Program, go to staging.childrensdefense.org/beat_the_odds.