Doctors told Jaime Gonzalez’s parents that his birth defects were so severe he probably wouldn’t live to age one. When he did, doctors told them next that he’d probably never walk. He did that too—though it is still difficult even after a series of surgeries. “[My parents] both pushed me,” Jaime said. “When I was little and didn’t want to try, my mother said, ‘Don’t say you can’t. You can.’ That became my attitude, and even when it was hard—I’m in pain even now—it’s never been an option for me to quit.”
Others also sold Jaime short. He was put in special education when he started kindergarten in South Central Los Angeles even though his mother had already taught him to read and write. But after his mother switched him to a new school, his first grade teacher saw his abilities and persuaded the principal to put him in the second grade. He eventually attended magnet programs throughout middle and high school, graduated seventh out of his class of 500, and received a full tuition scholarship to the University of Southern California in an eight year combined bachelor’s degree and medical school program.
Jaime—now Dr. Gonzalez—is part of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF)’s network of young servant leaders who are devoting their lives to serving the next generation of children. Winning a CDF Beat the Odds® scholarship in high school for demonstrating academic excellence despite great obstacles helped Jaime with living expenses in college, and getting involved with CDF’s efforts to enroll children in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) shaped his medical goals. He added a year to his education to get a master’s degree in public health along with his medical degree. He lost a year when his mother was shot while taking out the trash, and he saw her through two surgeries. After completing his residency Jaime is planning to return home to serve the Spanish-speaking underserved and uninsured population. “That’s where there is a need,” he explained, and unlike 90 percent of his medical school classmates, he speaks Spanish.
Growing up in Minnesota Katie DeSantis overcame a different set of terrible odds. At the age of three she witnessed her drunken father beat her mother. When her battered mom crawled into bed with her on another occasion, Katie consoled her by saying everything would be okay. But it wasn’t. Her mother escaped the abuse and moved Katie and her younger sister to Minneapolis, but then there were new problems.
The family was homeless seven times in Katie’s childhood. “My mom couldn’t hold down a steady job or a place for us to stay. We would live somewhere for six months to a year and get evicted and end up in a shelter.” There was often no privacy in the shelters and it was hard to do her homework in a loud and crowded area. Plus it was embarrassing, especially for a teenager in high school: “I would have the bus drop me off around the corner and I never invited anyone to where I lived.”
School became Katie’s refuge and the place where she excelled. When she too won a Children’s Defense Fund Beat the Odds® scholarship award in 2006, it was a turning point: “Beat the Odds really helped me to be able to tell my story and not be ashamed of the life I had lived.” Katie went on to graduate from Gustavus Adolphus College in southern Minnesota. She now works for Head Start in Minneapolis as the coordinator of its Project Secure for homeless children: “I was one of those kids and that’s where my heart is. They didn’t do anything wrong. I want to make sure they know that.”
La’Mont Geddis’s path to servant leadership started with a call to CDF’s headquarters from a pay phone after he heard a professor talk about the Freedom Schools® program during a lecture: “I’m a student at Howard University and I want to get involved in Freedom Schools. I want to make a difference.” That was 18 years ago, and La’Mont has since proved to be a truly valuable asset in the public schools of Washington, D.C. La’Mont always wanted to be a teacher and studied education at Howard, but believes much of what he knows about how to reach children comes from the training and experience he received as a servant leader intern, or teacher, in the Freedom Schools program, whose model curriculum provides summer and after-school enrichment that helps children fall in love with reading, increases their self-esteem, and generates more positive attitudes toward learning.
La’Mont’s first teaching job after Freedom Schools—a fourth grade class that had had six teachers by the time he got there in October—was so difficult he almost quit. But he remembered the message Freedom Schools instills in both its teachers and its students: You can make a difference. “I ended up loving that class and vice versa. I’ve followed some of them through college.” His career has since included serving as a principal and school leader, and he has never lost sight of the lessons he learned from Freedom Schools: “Teachers can become almost like robots. You go through the lessons without bringing in passion or creativity or empathy for the students. I’ve heard teachers say, ‘I don’t give parents my personal number’ and ‘I don’t make home visits.’ No. You’ve got to bring the school into the community and put all you’ve got into it. That’s the heart of Freedom Schools values. Teaching is not a profession. It’s a ministry.”
Jaime, Katie, and La’Mont are three of 40 young servant leaders whose stories we are celebrating as part of our 40th anniversary celebration—each representing hundreds, even thousands, of other young servant leaders who have come up through CDF’s leadership training ranks and who are making wonderful contributions as doctors, lawyers, educators, service providers, and parents in their communities and nation. I am so proud of them all and so grateful for all their good work. They are a reminder that we must never ever give up on any child and that the most important responsibility every generation and nation has is to prepare its children—all of them—for the future.
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.