Youth Justice


I’m always delighted to write columns about people who are doing what’s right and good, especially when they’re young.  So I’d like to share with you a few of the inspiring stories of some of the high school seniors honored this spring at Beat the Odds® Awards events hosted by the Children’s Defense Fund’s Minnesota and Texas offices.

Begun in 1990, the Beat the Odds scholarship program was formed by CDF to recognize and celebrate the achievements of courageous young people to counter so many media accounts of the minority of youths committing crimes.  These exceptional young people have not only prevailed against great misfortunes, but with caring adult support, they have thrived by working hard, striving for academic excellence and contributing to their communities.

Each year, CDF national and state offices honor high school students for their successes while surmounting colossal challenges. Each honoree receives a scholarship in addition to other forms of support such as computers and clothing. CDF has encouraged nearly 600 Beat the Odds honorees to become leaders and successful in a variety of professions as well as advocates for children and social justice.

Susan Castillo’s chronic anemia and asthma caused her to spend long periods of her childhood in and out of hospitals.  She endured crushing poverty and an abusive and drug addicted father.  Yet her spirit remained unbroken.  She has excelled academically and has been active in Houston community service projects.  Susan will be the first person in her family to attend college and she aspires to become a neuroscientist and to find a cure for autism, which afflicts her younger brother and so many other children.

Brandon Gassaway is a tall, handsome and articulate Black male. When his father murdered his mother in a rage because she attempted to escape from their abusive marriage, Brandon’s life turned upside down. He not only lost both parents, but was separated from his younger sister in a complicated custody struggle leaving each of them with different grandparents in distant cities. But Brandon found a way to turn calamity into victory in Houston. He remained focused on his studies and now mentors younger teens and coaches basketball. He will graduate with a 3.48 GPA and go on to college.

Fadumo Hassan’s mother died when she was eight. When she was 12, her father brought her and four younger brothers to the United States from Somalia. But once in the United States, her father abandoned the family. Things improved for Fadumo, however, after her aunt, Sadiya Sahal, took her in and gave her a stable and loving family life in Minneapolis. She encouraged Fadumo to be the first in their family to graduate from high school and enter college. However, disaster struck when her aunt was one of the motorists killed when the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed into the Mississippi River in August 2007. Determined not to let this chain of adversity dictate her future, Fadumo entered the University of Minnesota, while still in high school, through the state’s Post-Secondary Options program and earned 16 credits toward a university degree. She’s now on her way to becoming a dentist.

Early in his childhood, Justin Haynes McKizzie was nearly felled by poverty and violence.  By the age of 10, he had experienced living with his abusive father and crack-addicted mother, in the homes of relatives and then shifting from one shelter or rehabilitation center to another.  His life took a hard slide into gang membership and drug dealing, and he almost got sucked into the prison pipeline when he seriously injured another youth in a gang fight.

What Justin needed was the support of stable, healthy and caring adults.  He found that support with loving foster parents and a high school football coach in Minneapolis who mentored him off the field.  Justin was able to positively reinvent himself through athletics.  He played a major role in getting his football team to the state playoffs and was also a member of the track team. What is remarkable is that Justin is on schedule to graduate with his class even though he missed more than a year and a half of school. He has been admitted to Rochester Community College in the fall where he plans to study carpentry, business, and architecture and play football.  He hopes to build hospitals and places where young people can receive help.

Other equally inspiring honorees this year are Maipacher Her and Maricruz Monreal of St. Paul, Minnesota, and Fatima Kassim, Petra Villegas and Sheehan Whelan of Houston, Texas.

Whether the recognition ceremonies of these honorees takes place in Washington, D.C., or a city where one of our state offices is located, our Beat the Odds Awards dinners are special occasions for outstanding young people. Many of us know other teens who are beating the odds but will not have a dinner in their honor.  On their way to and from school, they daily walk a gauntlet through mean streets that are thoroughfares for crime and violence.  They struggle to learn in underachieving schools.  They have reached out for positive goals beyond the low expectations of others.  We should find ways to recognize and celebrate these young people as well.  They are also beating the odds—every day.

For more information about CDF’s Beat the Odds program visit