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Child Watch® Column: "Courage to Beat the Odds"

Release Date: November 9, 2007

Marian Wright Edelman

Imagine being alone on a battlefield facing new enemies each and every day. There are few visible avenues of retreat or escape and few resources to help you survive. But by dint of inner strength, you not only survive, you prevail.

That metaphor aptly describes each of the five heroic young people the Children's Defense Fund honored on October 25 at our annual Beat the Odds® Awards Dinner in Washington, D.C. Another five outstanding youth were celebrated in Los Angeles on November 1. CDF established the Beat the Odds Scholarship Program in 1990 to recognize and celebrate courageous high school seniors who have overcome adversity through inner strength and perseverance.  Almost all have gone on to achieve and succeed while contributing to their communities.  Here are their stories:

Cerstin Johnson was separated from her mother and siblings when their home in Metairie, Louisiana, was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Cerstin relocated many hundreds of miles away, to Washington, D.C., to live with cousins. She enrolled in the Duke Ellington School of the Arts where she took first prize in three writing competitions including the prestigious Pen/Faulkner essay contest. As the weight of separation took its toll, however, Cerstin became depressed, her grades fell and she gave up on sports.

Returning home to Lousiana and reconnecting with her family in January 2006 brought her back from depression. She began a process of healing and was able to return to Washington with a renewed sense of purpose. Today Cerstin is an honor roll student taking honors and advanced placement classes to prepare for college.  

In the winter of 2006, Cyd Fortune Rinonos's life and her family's well being were turned upside down when her father was diagnosed with liver cancer. The family relocated to Tampa, Florida, so he could be treated. Cyd stayed behind with friends, unable to transfer her class credits. In July she joined her family in Florida but could not attend school there.

When Cyd's father died in October 2006, she was devastated because he had been a major positive force in her life. Financially strapped, the family moved back to Virginia, and Cyd returned to school after missing a quarter. In addition to her schoolwork, she had to help her mother take care of her two younger sisters. Despite these challenges, Cyd is excelling in school.  She is a peer mediator, a member of the Asian Awareness Club and a writer for the school newspaper.  She plans to study chemical engineering in college.

Kyle Corfman has suffered many setbacks in his life.  When he was six his  manic-depressive father left the family, and when he was nine his mother moved with him to Lincoln, Nebraska, putting even greater distance between him and his father. After the move, his mother had to work long hours, so Kyle had to help around the house and learn to be self-sufficient.

Then in November 2003, Kyle's mother died suddenly in an auto accident on a Nebraska highway. Kyle had to move back to Maryland to live with an aunt and uncle. He committed himself to his studies, especially math, and excelled in sports, finding in his lacrosse coach a valuable mentor. Disruptions have not ended: His aunt and uncle divorced and during his sophomore year his father committed suicide. But Kyle has shown amazing strength through it all and is maintaining a 3.85 GPA.

Yah-Lahne Thompson's father left her family when she was eight years old.  Around the same time, her mother was diagnosed with Sarcoidosis, an incurable (though rarely fatal) disease causing tissue inflammation.  On days when she can't move because of the pain, Yah-Lahne must take care of her and assume responsibility for the house. Because her mother cannot work, the family's financial situation has deteriorated. In 2003 their home was damaged so badly by Hurricane Isabel that they could not repair it. They moved to Maryland in 2004 where unstable circumstances forced them to change residences frequently. Without a car, Yah-Lahne has had difficulty running errands for her family and has been unable to participate in extracurricular activities or maintain a social life.   Despite all this, she remains optimistic, and her self-discipline and academic drive strongly suggest that she will achieve her goal of becoming a doctor.

Learn more about the Beat the Odds program at www.childrensdefense.org/beattheodds.