Child Watch® Column: "Beating the Odds in Tough Times"

Release Date: December 11, 2009

Marian Wright Edelman

In these challenging economic times, when so many are struggling to keep their heads above water, life is toughest for children in broken families at the low end of the income scale. Yet despite struggling to live under the worst conditions, there are extraordinary young people who draw upon their inner strength to overcome the most daunting barriers. The five high school seniors selected for the Children's Defense Fund's 2009 Beat the Odds® November celebration in Washington, D.C. have faced overwhelming obstacles in their lives—poverty, violence, family breakup and abuse, homelessness, substance abuse—but they have not only endured, they've thrived.

The Beat the Odds program was initiated by the Children's Defense Fund (CDF) in 1990 to celebrate the positive potential of young people. We work with local education advocates to select students who demonstrate the strength of character and determination to beat the odds while achieving academic excellence and providing service to their families and communities. Each student is given a college scholarship and other prizes in recognition of his or her accomplishments and they are invited to CDF-Haley Farm and put on a youth leadership training ladder.

One of our honorees this year is Rebecca who has had to care for her parents since she was only nine years old after her father was severely injured in a tractor trailer accident, and later, when her mother suffered a massive stroke making it difficult for her to talk or maintain her balance. Among their many household chores, Rebecca and her younger sister spend a lot of time each day helping their parents perform the simplest tasks like putting on their shoes and combing their hair. That hasn't stopped Rebecca from enrolling in several Advanced Placement (AP) courses requiring her to manage a heavy load of homework each night and leaving her no free time to herself. But along with school work, she has also learned patience—and with that patience she is pursuing a dream of becoming a doctor.

Nathan had a difficult beginning. He was born to a 14-year-old mother who used drugs and subsequently had three more children by three different fathers. His father was in prison. At an early age, Nathan became the one responsible for taking care of the children while his mother worked afternoon and evening jobs. Along with juggling numerous responsibilities at home, Nathan worked hard at school. But after years of watching his mother act irresponsibly, he became a rebellious and reckless teenager himself. Concerned about Nathan's behavior and threats of suicide, his pastor intervened and began working with the family. In September 2007, his mother was killed in retaliation for helping a friend escape the control of a Latino gang, and his abusive father then tried to come back into his life. Pastor Frank again was there for Nathan and helped arrange a safe place for him to live. Currently, Nathan is excelling academically and also running a business with Pastor Frank producing T-shirts with encouraging messages to teens. This is good preparation for Nathan's plans to obtain a business management degree.

Crystal was very young when her father left her teenage mother to support three children on her own. Crystal had to wear the same clothes to school most of the time. Without the luxury of having books and other school supplies at home, she quickly fell behind her peers academically. She had few friends and was often teased by her third grade classmates because she couldn't read well. When Crystal was seven her mother remarried, but her stepfather was both physically and sexually abusive. She was hit regularly with shoes, belts and glass bottles, and her stepfather made her and her brother go to school with long-sleeved shirts and pants to hide any marks or bruises. He threatened to kill her mother and siblings if she told anyone about his sexual abuse of her and her sister. The abuse finally ended when she was twelve and her mother divorced him. But Crystal was angry at everyone in her life and she acted out in school. Her English teacher, Mr. Dick, worked with her and refused to send her to the office. He wouldn't give up on her. Because of Mr. Dick, Crystal learned how to trust people and her grades improved dramatically. Since then, she has had at least one teacher every year that truly cared about her. Thanks to these dedicated teachers and Crystal's inner strength, she says she now has excellent grades and—even more importantly—a better life.

Over the last two decades, the Children's Defense Fund's national and state offices have celebrated the achievements of hundreds of young people, who, in their daily lives, have beaten the odds and overcome what to many would be insurmountable obstacles. Thirty-eight incredible young people have been held up in 2009 as positive role models to other youths in our communities, especially in these hard times, to show that nothing is impossible for those who have the will to improve their lives. It's also important to emphasize that behind each successful child is at least one caring adult who took the time to believe in that child and guide him or her along the way. Make a commitment to be that adult in 2010 for at least one child.