Thanksgiving is a season when many Americans gather with our families over full dinner tables to count our blessings. Seventeen-year-old Eva Maria Turcios and her family take very little for granted any day, including the blessing of having any dinner at all: “I mean, there were nights where we didn’t have anything to put in our stomachs. Like we’d just have to drink water. And I guess there’s times where we didn’t know where we were going to live. But now it’s just a normal thing for us. When we’re faced with problems like that, we don’t sit there and cry about it. We don’t sit there and wait for someone to do something for us. My mom and I just figure out something, a way for us to make it to the next day, to put food in our stomachs, to have a roof over our heads.”
On paper, Eva is a standout high school senior with a 3.8 GPA and a rigorous course load of all honors and International Baccalaureate classes. She is the secretary of her school’s Hispanic Leadership Club and hopes to study biology, chemistry, or biomedical engineering in college. It’s impossible to fully appreciate her academic accomplishments without knowing something about her life outside the classroom.
Born in Honduras, her parents brought her to America for a better future two months later. Her father worked hard and bought a house for the family in Virginia, while her mother stayed home to care for Eva and her younger siblings. Eva always loved reading and did well in school, and for a while, life was calm. But by the time Eva was 10, her American dream had turned into a nightmare of abuse and then extreme poverty.
Her father started drinking heavily and became abusive, terrorizing the entire family. The alcoholism eventually cost him his job. When he picked the children up from school one day so drunk they didn’t think they would survive the drive home, Eva called the police herself to report him. But his worst crime was still to come.
A few months later, after another drinking binge, he brutally assaulted two buddies with a machete inside the family’s home and then ran from authorities. Eva was 11 years old and will never forget the terror of being woken up to translate for her mother amid the chaos as the house was overrun with police officers and dogs and surrounded by helicopters.
Her father was deported, and Eva remained her mother’s strongest support as their family fell into extreme poverty—experiencing gnawing hunger, homelessness, and hopelessness. They shared single rented rooms and spent time on waiting lists at homeless shelters while Eva’s mother struggled to piece together enough work to keep the family afloat. Eva took care of her younger siblings, and got her first job at age 14 to help out. Today Eva works four days a week and cooks for the family and keeps the house clean while her mother works two jobs. Through it all she never stopped excelling in school, even when small things like routine writing and research assignments presented challenges: “I didn’t have Internet or a laptop . . . I would have to take the bus to go to the library and do all my work until the library closed, so if the library closed and I didn’t finish all my work, then it was kind of a struggle.” Eva often became depressed at her family’s situation and the thought that things might never get better. But her mother reminded her that education was the only way out: “‘If you don’t get an education you’re going to work like me your whole life, and we’re going to live our whole life the way we are now.’ And that motivated me….And even though it might take a lot of hard work, it’s better to work hard in school than work hard in a fast food restaurant.” That hard work has gotten her where she is now.
It’s made her one of the inspiring Washington, D.C. area winners of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Beat the Odds® scholarship awards. These awards are given each year to high school seniors who have succeeded in school despite tremendous adversity, and come with a $10,000 scholarship, laptop computer, guidance through the college admission process, and an invitation to join CDF’s young servant leadership development training programs.
Eva has her own definition of what it means to beat the odds: “You overcome the challenges, and you learn from the obstacles. You use the experience to help you live a better life. You don’t just think how bad your life was because you had to go through things; you say how lucky you are to have so much experience.”
It’s easy to give thanks for everything good. Eva’s ability to be grateful for the hard times shows a maturity far beyond her years. Her life today is a far cry from, as she says, “the way it should have turned out.” But how many more children and youth like Eva are trapped on dead-end paths of parental poverty, substance abuse, and family violence without ever getting a chance to turn their own lives around? Find out more about the Beat the Odds program and how you can celebrate and support children like Eva who’ve beaten the odds in your community. Then find out what you can do for the millions of Evas still desperately waiting for hope and help. Begin today by insisting that President Obama and members of Congress put the millions of Evas in our nation at the top of their priorities agenda and pursue justice for all our young who are the poorest Americans.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.