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A second generation American of Mexican and Guatemalan ancestry who attended a tough, inner-city high school, Amanda Aguirre was not on a path to becoming a player in health care reform - or even to going to college.
She grew up in Houston. Her father and mother worked hard to provide for Amanda and supported her dream of going to college. They thought she should go to the local junior college. They couldn’t afford more. But Amanda wanted to attend the University of Texas and said she’d pay for it herself, which she did through a scholarship, loans, and waitressing and other jobs. It was a struggle.
The summer before her junior year, she worked as an intern at CDF’s Houston office. There, she began to realize her leadership and organizing abilities and developed an interest and expertise in health care advocacy that would eventually lead to her current work in Washington, D.C. This was 2008, when all CDF offices had intensive campaigns to enroll children in the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and Medicaid.
Amanda grew up in one of the Hispanic communities targeted by the campaign. “They were my neighbors, my mother’s friends. I realized that I had an ability, with my background, to do this kind of outreach work.” She enrolled at least 200 children and wrote some of the stories the office used to successfully urge the Texas legislature to expand health care coverage for children.
The next summer, she attended her first Youth Leadership Advocacy Training (YALT) at Haley Farm. “I didn’t quite know how I was going to pay for the next year of college and stressed out on loans.” At the farm, “I had the experience that I was exactly where I was supposed be and doing what I was meant to do.”
During her senior year, Amanda got a fellowship at the White House Office of Public Engagement, where she helped plan events during the passage of health care reform. After becoming the first in her extended family to graduate from college, she worked at the Department of Health and Human Services, where she coordinated educational outreach and events for Latino and youth groups on the Affordable Care Act. “YALT gave me the framework for community organizing - establishing needs, being respectful.”
Amanda went on to be assistant to the director of the Center for Medicaid and CHIP services, before becoming involved in the Obama 2012 campaign. This fall, she’s working on a political campaign in Virginia.
“Every job I take is something that pushes me and benefits the quality of life for working people like my parents and people who are vulnerable. If it were not for CDF, I probably would have stayed in Houston at some regular job. CDF provided a family-like support system that made me believe I could do whatever I wanted to do – and now I am.”
Princess Allen said she has buried her parents in her memory. Their household was one of drug addiction and domestic violence. When she was two years old, her father took her to live with his mother. She and her grandmother lived in the San Fernando Valley of California and her grandmother worked in downtown Los Angeles. “She took two buses. She never earned enough to own a home or a car or to take a vacation.”
Her grandmother died when she was eight, and Princess was sent into kinship foster care with her aunt, who mostly ignored her. Princess suffered from depression as a child, sometimes sitting alone in her room in the dark for hours. A therapist provided by children’s services agreed that she should not remain with her aunt.
At 10, she was placed in foster care with a single mother in Van Nuyes. “She had a big extended family, and I fit in. We went to church. I had friends. That’s when I learned about responsibility, doing chores, life skills.” A relative of her foster mother ran the phone bill up to the point the service was cut off. Because a working telephone was a requirement of being a foster home, Princess was moved to a home in Pasadena, again a single mother who kept two other foster children.
Princess “held everything in” and put her head into her books. “One of the reasons why I had to go to only two foster homes is because I did so well in school and didn’t cause problems.” She was an exceptional honors student, swam on the school team, and served as student body president. Almost no one knew her background or living situation. The exposure that came with the Beat the Odds award in 2002 meant everyone suddenly found out. “I was really worried but everyone loved it. My life has never been the same since.”
Princess says going to the University of California at Berkley was not easy academically or socially as a “poor black kid” going to an elite school. “I didn’t fit into any box anymore.” CDF kept in touch and invited her to conferences and symposiums. She went to a Young Advocate Leadership Training which fired up her passion for helping poor children. She began tutoring and mentoring in Oakland and got interested in public policy. She graduated in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in rhetoric.
She went back to school in 2011 and served on the associate board of the KIPP Schools of Chicago. This spring, Princess graduated from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy with a master’s degree in public finance. This summer, she moved to California to work for Stifel Nicholaus in San Francisco, an investment banking company. She is a K-12 school district banker, structuring transactions for school bonds.
She intends to get involved again with children in San Francisco, maybe start an associate board of young professionals for the KIPP schools there to volunteer as mentors and tutors. “I feel so passionate about helping young people. I don’t want a child growing up in poverty or with a disadvantage. I want to help make their lives better.”
Marino Angulo has come a long way. When he was six years old, his family emigrated to East Los Angeles from an area of central Mexico so isolated that he saw his first car on his journey to the border. In the U.S., his mother did seamstress work at home and took care of Marino, the oldest, and his nine siblings. His father held a series of jobs “even though he was drinking. But our home life was miserable. He was hitting my mother a lot. He was hitting us. He was frustrated.”
School was a safe place where teachers helped. He remembers the thrilling impact of hearing his fourth grade teacher say to his mother, “Marino is such a great kid and hard worker. He can do anything he wants.” Marino will never forget the day his father shot his mother with a gun. He heard the bang and ran to the back of the house, getting down on his knees and praying. His mother spent a few weeks in the hospital, recovered and refused to press charges. His father began to sell drugs from the house. The police came when only his mother was home, and she spent a year in jail.
Marino was a junior in high school that year, and he and one of his sisters supported and kept the family together.
Marino swept up a gas station parking lot and mowed lawns. His high school basketball coach hired Marino to wash cars and do other jobs and let him use his computer. His sister worked in a sweat shop. “We couldn’t let our siblings down,” he said. He went to school every day and had perfect attendance through high school. He didn’t even consider dropping out. “I’m the oldest one and a role model and I’ve got no choice.”
That same year his mother was in jail, Marino won the Beat the Odds award. “My counselor nominated me and it changed my life. When I met the other people at the banquet, they were important people, and they thought highly of me. They thought I accomplished something and I thought, ‘They’re smart. There must be some merit to their thoughts.’ When you come from a situation like mine, you doubt yourself. They believed in me and believing in myself was really what allowed me to go on to college.”
Marino graduated from Whittier College and for the past 16 years has taught social studies and history – and coached basketball – in his hometown high school. “When you ask, ‘How is it that a person like me can make it?’ it has a lot to do with teachers. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing now. I felt it would be most rewarding to teach at a school with students who are like what I was. That’s where I felt the most need.” Marino remains a strong supporter of CDF and has served on the selection committee for Beat the Odds in California for many years.
Erica Ayala’s first experience at a CDF Freedom Schools® training was “overwhelming in the greatest way possible.” She had never seen “that many young people; and of color, working together in such an uplifting way.”
Erica, who is of Puerto Rican and Cuban ancestry, grew up in New Rochelle, New York. Her mother was a family lawyer; her father a postal worker. She had just completed her sophomore year at Elon University in North Carolina, where she majored in political science.
The highlight of the training for her was a documentary on the Children’s March in Birmingham. “It was a movement led by young people. I didn’t know that history, and I was very empowered by it. They changed the country. I was learning as a Latina that there were things that needed to be changed, and I started to think differently about everything. I was looking for the right organization to help me figure out what kind of leader I wanted to be, and Freedom Schools came along at just the right time.”
This summer was Erica’s eighth involved in Freedom Schools. In her first year as a teacher or servant leader intern at Freedom Schools, she worked with children age seven to nine. “They are so inquisitive and also exploring their own opinions. I find the greatest part of youth leadership development is when you talk to a young person and they realize something about themselves they didn’t realize before—that they have an opinion or skill that matters to the conversation.”
Erica became an administrator at Freedom Schools sites in New York and Virginia. By then, she was out of college, working first for the National Action Network in New York and then as trainer and community outreach coordinator for Buffalo Wild Wings, which she says has a great adult training model. She also became an Ella Baker Trainer for Freedom Schools, where she helped develop a more interactive curriculum about the stages of child development for the servant leadership training.
This year is Erica’s fifth as a leader in the Young Advocate Leadership Training program. YALT, she said, “opened my eyes to all the possibilities within the realm of child advocacy.” She participated in the rally in Minnesota on October 10, 2010 created by Minnesota YALT leaders and joined by YALT leaders from other states. At the rally, held just before the gubernatorial election, “We presented ten things we wanted the candidates and the state to focus on to help children and youth. It was the closest thing to a children’s march we were able to experience.”
This summer, Erica was hired to oversee youth development in CDF’s New York office. She intends to connect all the young people selected for the Beat the Odds scholarship to CDF’s Freedom Schools and YALT leaders. “We want to tie them in to CDF’s policy work and link them to each other so they can be part of the movement for children.” Erica is currently pursuing a Master of Public Administration degree at New York University Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service.
Donnie Belcher Smith vividly remembers visiting her mother in prison as a preschooler, talking to her on the telephone behind the thick glass and crying when she had to say goodbye. She lived with her grandmother for six years while her mother served time for an armed robbery related to her addiction to crack cocaine. She was reunited with her mother after her release but life was difficult because her mother couldn’t separate herself from drugs. Donnie had to look out for herself and started working at McDonald’s at the age of 12, pretending to be 14.
That year one of her mother’s boyfriends raped her and left her feeling guilty and ashamed. Her grandmother sent her to a free summer program called Freedom Schools, and it quickly became a refuge and an eyeopener. For the first time she met college students including Black male college students. “My teacher went to Morehouse and to hear him talk about his college experiences, I thought, ‘Hey, this college thing. I want to do that!’” She’d always loved reading and writing, and Freedom Schools encouraged her passion for it. “It was a form of therapy for me to write poetry.” And she began to dream about one day becoming a teacher.
Although she was an A student in Kansas City, she fell behind when she and her mother moved to Minneapolis. School was more demanding, she didn’t have friends, and she struggled to catch up. Writing helped—poetry, journals, journalism. And soon Donnie became an A student again, served as editor of the high school newspaper, and worked at Insight News after school as a writer and editor. She mentored younger students and the dream grew stronger.
She was thrilled, when she went to the CDF Minneapolis office for a Beat the Odds interview, to see the CDF boat logo that had been on her Tshirt in Freedom Schools. Receiving the award was a validation—“I felt like I mattered.” Armed with a bachelor’s degree in education from DePaul University, she has realized her childhood dream and now teaches English at a magnet school in Chicago that counts Michelle Obama as one of its accomplished graduates.
This summer, Donnie Belcher Smith and her husband Che “Rhymefest” Smith, a musician who grew up with Kanye West, launched a nonprofit program called Donda’s House. Named after West’s mother who was an educator, Donda’s House serves disadvantaged children aged 15 to 24 in Chicago. They are currently piloting a musicwriting program in a community center in Chicago. They are raising funds to expand to more children and different arts in the coming years. “Free programs like Freedom School gave me access to experiences I wouldn’t otherwise have had, and one of my lifelong dreams has been to start my own program.”
At the Black Community Crusade for Children gathering in 2010, she brainstormed with other young leaders and met Michael Tubbs who recently won election to the City Council in Stockton, California. “We’re talking about maybe starting a Donda’s House there.”
The third of five boys born to a single mother, Darryl Briggs had little adult guidance as he grew up black and poor in the Bronx – not a single counselor or teacher or coach who saw his potential or took an interest in him.
Darryl’s high-poverty high school had eight floors overflowing with 8,000 students. “There were easily 35 students in a classroom and there’s weren’t even 35 desks.” There was one lab in the entire school. The worst part for Darryl was the lack of individual attention. His classes were uninteresting and too easy. None of his teachers saw his need for academic challenges. They hardly noticed him at all. When he skipped class, no one asked why. When he started hanging out with the wrong crowd, no one told him that wasn’t a good idea.
At 15, Darryl ran away from home and dropped out of school. He was arrested for graffiti and sentenced to two months in juvenile detention. His school wouldn’t take him back and suggested he get his GED. Soon, he was arrested again, this time for stealing a cell phone. “I paid attention to the wrong things. I was applying myself on the street instead of academic achievement.”
Darryl escaped the pipeline to prison by getting involved in community organizing, finding a mentor and growing as a leader through CDF’s youth leadership training program. A friend persuaded him to come by a non-profit organization, For a Better Bronx, where he met a man who’d had similar experiences to his and became a mentor. Darryl volunteered and became the organization’s youth program coordinator.
Then Darryl linked up with CDF-New York, which led a coalition that succeeded in closing a notorious juvenile justice facility in the Bronx. He was invited to Haley Farm to participate in the Young Advocate Leadership Training and is now a YALT national trainer himself.
“The mission of YALT is to edify and organize the voice of young people. If you look throughout history, a lot of social change movements are led by youth. We want to turn their light bulbs on that, ‘Hey, we have a duty to our community and ourselves.’ We have a network around the country and we are building strength in numbers.” His personal mission of helping young black men in the juvenile justice system meshed perfectly with CDF’s campaign to dismantle the Cradle to Prison Pipeline.
He got his GED, and this spring graduated from Bronx Community College. Darryl, now 23, is working on a degree in social work at Lehman College and volunteers at CDF’s New York office, organizing to raise the age of adulthood in the New York court system from 16 to 18. He’s also co-chair of a group that’s part of the Bronx clergy criminal justice roundtable.
“We’re creating a series of trainings for young people on probation to build literacy and life skills and show them how to become community organizers. We want to bring these young people into the realm of policy and show them how they can create change.”
Chris Burton’s first experienced a Freedom School National Training at Haley Farm following his freshman year at Davidson College in North Carolina in 2005. “It was empowering because you are in a tent with hundreds like you, likeminded. It shook us all up. Apathy had become cool: ‘Things suck. You can’t do anything about it.’ No. You can go back to your community and do something. You can make a difference.”
Two of Chris’ aunts were teachers in Bedford Stuyvesent; his mother was fiscal officer of a Head Start there. His father remained in Jamaica. He wasn’t sure he was interested in teaching but with that family background, “I thought I’d give it a try. I could see myself doing it.” He enjoyed several summers as a Servant Leader Intern at Freedom Schools in Brooklyn, then attended a YALT gathering at Haley Farm in 2008.
“That really expanded my view in terms of personal agency. I can go back to my community and do tangible things.” He participated in the 2010 YALT-led rally at the state capital in St. Paul to put children’s issues on Minnesota’s political agenda.
“Garrison Keilor, Al Franken, Mrs Edelman were there. My takeaway was: We have this engrained expectation that leadership comes from the top down. Wait for the next assignment. I learned the power of the grassroots. You connect with people. You respect each other and work together to build something. Everyone has resources to build on. That’s what I learned at the Minnesota event. You don’t have to wait for something to drop on you.”
Since graduating, Chris has worked as chaplain at an Episcopal school in Charlotte, North Carolina and stayed very active in YALT. He was invited to be on the steering committee.
Chris Burton and his wife just moved to Richmond, Virginia, where he will attend the Union Presbyterian Seminary. “My passion is youth ministry,” he said, and when he completes his studies, he and his wife will settle in East Orange, New Jersey, where Chris grew up in a large extended family of Jamaican origin, or Brooklyn, New York, where he attended public school.
J. Moises Cedillos came to the United States from war-torn El Salvador in 1984, riding on his uncle’s back as they crossed the Rio Grande. He was three years old. His father had come up first, and Moises, his mother, and three older siblings lived with him in a closet in Houston in an apartment filled with other new immigrants.
His father worked as a janitor. His mother also found janitorial work, and eventually they moved into a one bedroom apartment. Both worked two jobs. Moises learned English watching Sesame Street while his parents worked. “Somehow, my mother knew enough to tune in to PBS.”
By the time Moises was eight, he too worked as a janitor. At night, he and his older brothers cleaned a place called the Petite Academy, a day care center. “I was cleaning up for kids my own age and I could see the toys and everything. But we knew there wasn’t any other option, and it didn’t feel like work because I was with my brothers.” Throughout high school, he worked 30 to 40 hours a week. His brothers picked him up after school to clean office buildings from 4 to 9. Weekends, he worked the graveyard shift.
In high school, Moises began to realize that the way up was through education, and he set his sight on being number one in his class. Even with his work schedule, he participated in science fairs and tried to do track and field though he wasn’t able to find the time. “I joined organizations to put on my resume but I couldn’t be that active. He graduated number 23, which put him in the top 15 percent of his class but “far from the number I wanted.”
His counselor suggested he apply for the CDF Beat the Odds award in 2000. “That was the changing point of my life. It gave me, yes, people are recognizing the difficulties I go through. I may not graduate number one but maybe I didn’t have the opportunity to do that.” He also received a full scholarship from Rice University.
When the university learned he was living in the country illegally, it rescinded the scholarship. He attended the University of Houston but was expelled after his second year. He couldn’t study or focus. His father had been deported for the second time and his own work permit was withdrawn. “I was thinking, ’What’s the purpose of going to college if I can’t work here?’”
CDF’s Houston office found an immigration attorney to take his case pro bono, and Moises was granted citizenship. He decided to become a lawyer. He attended Houston Community College and then Texas Southern University, while working part-time as a file clerk at a Houston law office. He went on to Ohio State University’s law school, clerked at a circuit court in Michigan, and returned to Houston with a job at the catastrophic injury law firm he’d worked for during college.
Moises attends the Beat the Odds event in Houston every year and says, “In all genuineness, I can tell you that CDF is family to me. I committed myself to donating annually (for a life-time) to CDF because of all that the organization has done for me and my family. The change is real and palpable!“
In the acceptance speech for her Washington, D.C. Beat the Odds award, Rhondee Benjamin-Johnson described the murder of her aunt when she was a child and its effect on her family, which grew overnight from seven to 11 children.
Her parents separated under the strain, and Rhondee, then 10 years old, assumed a lot of responsibility for her siblings’ and cousins’ care. She prepared meals, monitored the children’s homework, and supervised chores and baths. Her mother, a teacher, was working “superhard” and needed Rhondee’s help.
“The main impact was that we didn’t have enough money. We were thrown into poverty, and we felt the stigma of being poor.” School was her refuge. “I could focus on school and take my mind off what was happening at home. When the teachers saw I was doing well, their tendency was to teach me more, give me praise, and that helped.” One year, a teacher gave her a winter coat in a kind way that didn’t make her feel bad. She excelled in high school as a National Merit Commended Scholar and senior class president. She received the Beat the Odds award in 1992.
Rhondee graduated from Spelman College and Harvard Medical School. She also got a master’s degree in anthropology and development from the London School of Economics, where she got the idea of medicine as an agent of social change. “Medicine a long time ago recognized that social circumstances affect your health and lifespan.”
Rhondee practiced medicine in underserved communities in Baltimore and worked as a consultant to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to develop quality measures. In 2006, she was featured on a panel on young women’s perspective on health, education and leadership at the Global Women’s Action Network for Children Conference in Jordan, under the patronage of Her Majesty Queen Rania Al-Abdullah.
This July, Rhondee began a new job at Mary’s Center for Maternal and Child Health, as medical director at the largest of its six sites in Washington, D.C. Begun 25 years ago by nurse Maria Gomez to care for immigrant pregnant women, Mary’s Center embodies the idea of medicine as an agent of social change. Each site provides not only medical care but social services, including day care for children whose parents agree to learn English and computer literacy so they can better navigate their world. Four have charter schools.
Rhondee said she’s excited to work at a place with a broader view of medicine. She remains close to CDF and has been on the Beat the Odds selection committee in Washington for many years. “All along I’ve had people who helped me and cared about me. I feel that’s what CDF celebrates – kids can’t always make it by themselves and need help and encouragement beyond their families.”
Kyle Corfman, who grew up in Poolesville, Maryland, in Montgomery County, experienced the sudden loss of both parents during his youth – his mother in a car crash and his father by suicide.
His father, whom he described as “the nicest person you’d ever want to meet,” suffered from severe depression and consequent alcoholism, and his parents divorced when he was six. Kyle visited his father regularly. “He was always great with me and didn’t let me see what he was going through.” When he was ten, he moved with his mother to Lincoln, Nebraska. He spent summers with his father, who had become a woman.
“He looked significantly different, and I remember being a little confused. But he was still the same person. He never changed in my mind, even though officially he was Susan.” His father’s new husband had a daughter close to Kyle’s age. They became friends and remain so to this day. Because Kyle and his father didn’t live in the same area, his school friends had no contact with his father, saving Kyle any embarrassment that might have caused.
When Kyle was 13, his mother died in a car crash on her way to a store to buy him a Boy Scout belt. His mother’s large family made it clear to him that it wasn’t his fault. He moved back to Maryland and lived with an aunt and uncle, still making regular visits to “Aunt Susan” in West Virginia. His father shot and killed himself when Kyle was 15, which he said he took very hard. Around the same time, he developed Crohn’s Disease but he never gave up.
Kyle did well in high school, especially in math. “I had an interesting math teacher my senior year. The school didn’t offer calculus 3, and he taught it to 13 of us during an off period.” Kyle found that he especially likes hands-on, applied mathematics. “I think this came from my Dad. He was an avid carpenter. I have a dresser and desk he built.”
Kyle graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and a grade point average of 3.5. He became involved with Engineers Without Borders, volunteers who do engineering projects around the world. Kyle still manages fundraisers for the group. He is now pursuing a Masters Degree in Mechanical Engineering, also at the University of Maryland, and will graduate in 2014. He hopes to find work in renewable energy.
Winning the Beat the Odds Award in 2007 “really helped” him, he said. “The money obviously helped but what really affected me was hearing everybody else’s story, how incredible the other kids were. It drove me to want to do better things with my life.”
Katie DeSantis was homeless seven times in her youth. She remembers wanting a stable home life and the luxury of a quiet place to study. However, the consequences of family violence, emotional stress, and poverty caused her to miss out on much of her childhood.
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.
“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. It was just a lot of transitions when I was a kid.” Katie says her mother was just really bad with money and budgeting. “Even now that we’re grown, she still has a problem budgeting for herself.”
They lived in various shelters, including one that served 1,500 people a night. There was no privacy 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. “That’s an awkward phase and you don’t want to do anything to set you apart. I would have the bus drop me off around the corner and I never invited anyone to where I lived. Very few people knew my situation.” School became her refuge and the place where she excelled. She was a cheerleader, a member of the student council and of the National Honor Society.
Her homelessness remained hidden until she was a sophomore in high school, when a liaison to the school district at the shelter told one of her teachers. “He sat me down and became my ally.” He gradually let other teachers know.
She “came out” to her friends when she won the Beat the Odds award in 2006. “It was uncomfortable at first, but Beat the Odds really helped me to be able to tell my story and not be ashamed of the life I had lived. It helped me to be more confident. It was a big moment in my life.”
Katie graduated 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. She picks up children from three shelters – often as many as 75 - and takes them to Head Start and helps their parents get them medical care, eyeglasses and dental care. She also helps their parents with jobs and housing.
“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.”
If Ashley Dewey were to write a story about her childhood, she might title it “The Girl Nobody Wanted.”
From a small child until the age of 16, she and her six siblings endured physical and emotional abuse. Ashley acted up in school. Other kids teased her about her acne. She got into fights and was suspended from time to time. One day, her mother came into the classroom and hit Ashley with the heel of her shoe because she’d gotten a D in behavior. Ashley wrote in a journal she kept for class, “I hate myself and I’m going to kill myself.” The teacher sent her to a social worker at the school. Authorities came to her home, and she attended counseling sessions. She pretended everything was okay because she didn’t want to leave her siblings.
At 16, she got a job at McDonald’s, and her mother began charging her rent. When Ashley spent the money on clothes one week, her mother said she had to learn responsibility and put her out of the house. She stayed with various friends, dropped out of school, and drank and smoked marijuana. She persuaded her father, with whom she’d had sporadic contact, to take her in. Soon, he said she was ruining his love life, and he put her out late one night too.
The next day, Ashley went to the courthouse and asked to be emancipated. “I told them my mom and dad didn’t want me.” The authorities called her parents, who confirmed her statement. The court decided to put her in a small group home for girls in New Orleans. She was afraid to go there because one of her sisters had a bad experience in a group home, but Ashley loved it.
“It had a library to do school work. Everyone had dinner at the table. It was like a family setting even though it was residential counselors. They took time to talk to me and teach me.” She stopped drinking and using drugs. She attended one of the city’s worst high schools. Her first week, a girl set fire to a bathroom and when the students evacuated, they witnessed a drive-by shooting.
Ashley spent most of her time at school with the teachers. Especially helpful was her teacher Joy Butler-Paloade, who was and continues to be a solid pillar of support. Ashley liked math, and once, when an algebra teacher suddenly quit, she asked another math teacher to teach her the lesson and then she taught the teacher-less class. The students listened to her. She became student body president, homecoming queen, and a member of Big Brothers/Big Sisters. She graduated third in her class.
Ashley is now a senior at Southern University in Baton Rouge, majoring in accounting, and works part-time as a teller at Chase Bank. About the Beat the Odds award, she said, “It’s a blessing when you get rewarded for changing your life for the better.” She returns twice a month to the group home in New Orleans to encourage the girls now living there with her example.
Bryan Eason, 29, doesn’t know what he would be doing today if CDF hadn’t come into his life. He’s sure, though, that he wouldn’t have felt such a deep sense of purpose nor would he have known “how to hone my talents to affect change.”
Bryan became a Freedom Schools teacher or Servant Leader Intern ten years ago in his hometown of St. Louis, where his mother is a teacher and his father is a radio announcer. When he signed up, he thought of it as a summer job but it altered and shaped the direction of his life, starting with his change of major from media studies to education.
Bryan now teaches special needs children in the St. Louis public school system. “The big thing I learned in Freedom Schools: You are an advocate in charge of making sure kids get to a successful adulthood and you carry that passion into the classroom.” As he has taught various grade levels at different schools in the system, he’s found students gravitating to him because of his passion, and he’s seen staff attitudes in the schools shift because of his example of servant leadership.
Bryan has traveled up the CDF youth leadership ladder—from Freedom School Servant Leader Intern to Ella Baker Trainer to Young Advocate Leadership Training (YALT) national organizer. He has embraced servant leadership— “serve first, then lead”—so thoroughly that it is now “the air I breathe.”
Freedom Schools are about changing the culture of education, he said. The YALT training is about “rebuilding our village” and focuses on community organizing and nonviolent direct action echoing the civil rights movement of the 1960s. One of the YALT trainers is James Lawson, who taught nonviolence to students in Nashville before the lunch counter sitins in 1960.
“He expressed to us that direct action is disciplined action—a disciplined group of people executing one action they agree on and completing the task.” Bryan participated in a YALTled rally at the state capital in Minnesota in 2010 to put children’s needs on the political agenda.
Bryan is organizing young people in St. Louis as a Children’s Action Team. They are partnering with other organizations and going doortodoor in poor neighborhoods to find out what resources families need and building a database. Then they will work with others to provide those resources. They are also focusing on school expulsions and suspensions that push children into the pipeline to prison.
“I’m really excited about this work. I believe if you can fix little problems, you can fix big ones.”
Brandon Gassaway says that his “entire life changed in the blink of an eye” at age 16 when his mother was stabbed to death by his father while attempting to leave the marriage.
Brandon didn’t see the murder but he was in the house. “After he did it, he came up and told me.” Brandon said he was equally attached to both parents and was “as surprised and shocked as everybody was.”
Within one week, Brandon was forced to leave everything familiar behind – school, house, and sister. Custody battles between the two sets of grandparents put him and his sister in separate households. He moved from Dallas to Houston, lived with his maternal grandparents and began attending a school there.
The teachers and students at his new school didn’t know about the tragedy in his life. “I didn’t have anybody to talk to about it. Then I found somebody I trusted who helped me out.” This advisor just happened to be a social worker. He kept focused on school, played basketball and kept his grades up. Asked why losing both parents in such a violent way didn’t crush him, he said, “I wouldn’t let it. That’s just the type of person I am. I don’t give up.” He visits his father in prison because “he’s still my father.”
Receiving a Beat the Odds award in 2008 and getting involved with CDF “helped me get through college and showed me different avenues of how to help others.” He’s spent summers as an intern in CDF’s Houston office and participated in the Young Advocate Leadership Training (YALT) at Haley Farm.
Brandon is a senior at the University of New Mexico, studying architecture with a focus on urban design and historic preservation. He was recently selected as one of the 2012-2013 scholars of the university’s Ronald E. McNair Post Baccalaureate Achievement program.
He regularly mentors other young men, starting with a cousin who is like a younger brother. “I always try to help out with the younger guys. A lot of them don’t see the importance of education. This is a lifelong commitment.”
“Hello, my name is La’Mont Geddis. I’m a student at Howard and I want to get involved in Freedom Schools,” La’Mont said in a call to CDF from a pay phone right after a professor in one of his classes talked about CDF and Freedom Schools. The response: “Great! You’ll be perfect for our Freedom School in Columbia Heights.”
This happened 18 years ago, in 1995, and La’Mont has since proved to be a valuable asset in the public schools of Washington, D.C. -- an African American man deeply committed to education, who has taught some of the most challenging children in some of the most challenging schools in the district.
La’Mont grew up in a working class family in Queens, New York – his mother was a maid; his father a truck driver - and he always wanted to be a teacher. He studied education at Howard, but much of what he knows and feels about children and how to reach them came from being a teacher or servant leader intern at Freedom Schools. “I wish I could mandate Freedom Schools for all schools of education.”
His long list of what he learned through Freedom Schools begins with “understanding poverty.” He’d thought it had only to do with money. “I found out there’s emotional poverty and love poverty and mental poverty, and that’s what makes up an inner city school. These children are victims of poverty and sometimes, hurt kids try to hurt. So how do you help them, not exclude them, give them a voice? That’s what Freedom Schools helped us understand.”
La’Mont’s first teaching job – a fourth grade class that had had six teachers by the time he got there in October – was so difficult he almost quit. He kept in mind the Freedom School message to both the college students and the children: “You can make a difference.” He used many of the Freedom School techniques he’d been taught and he persisted. “I ended up loving that class and vice versa. I’ve followed some of them through college.”
La’Mont went on to teach at the Maya Angelou Public Charter Schools, which serves children who’ve had difficulty in other schools. He became the principal of its middle school, where 43 percent of the students are in special education. Last year, the school made the top five percent of the city’s middle schools with growth in achievement. This fall, he began working as co-principal at the Malcolm X Elementary School, a failing school the district is attempting to turn around.
“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 School values. Teaching is not a profession. It’s a ministry.”
Growing up, Jonah Gilmore experienced the worst of New Orleans—poverty, gun violence and Katrina.
When he was six, his older brothers were shot while walking home from a party. One was killed; the other temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. “It had a deep effect on me. Even though I really didn’t know what was going on, I knew my brother wasn’t going to be here anymore.”
Two years later, the family’s unit in a housing project burned down and they lost everything. After that, his parents split up. Then, just seven days into his freshman year of high school, Katrina struck. His mother had to stay on her job in a hospital kitchen, and Jonah went to his aunt’s house. When the water began rising, they made it to the Superdome.
“It was one of the worst times of my life—people crying and people dying. It was dark and very hot. It was horrifying.” They were there three days and then bused to the Astrodome in Houston. Jonah and his brother then went to Natchez, Mississippi, and he lived there until his mother’s house in New Orleans was repaired.
Despite the hardships, Jonah remained focused on education. He finished high school with a 3.4 GPA, was vice-president of the student council, senior class president, and ROTC executive officer. “So many people I grew up with dropped out and there’s nothing there, nothing to look forward to. I wanted to have opportunities. I didn’t want to fall into the world of no future I saw around me.”
In his high school, not many students were interested in college. The guidance counselor knew that Jonah was but had no way to pay for it. She showed him a flyer about Beat the Odds. It was late in the process, and Jonah turned in his essay the last day. The principal personally drove him to the CDF office so he could turn it in before the deadline.
He said he would not have been able to go to college if it weren’t for the CDF scholarship and a scholarship from Dillard University. “It helped me tell my story. I think other people out there might have to hear it and think they could go to college too.”
Jonah graduated this spring, with a major in mass communications. He won Dillard’s Community Service Award for the most community service hours. He got some of the impetus from a Young Advocate Leadership Training (YALT). “They taught us how we can have an effect on society” and he applied this to his leadership of a university social service organization.
This summer, he interned as a reporter at a New Orleans television station and has applied to televisions stations in smaller markets where he can get a start and then move up. Wherever he lands, he will “find an organization or something to do to help. That’s me. I want to give back.”
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.
His parents had emigrated from Mexico before he was born and settled in South Central Los Angeles. His father worked two jobs as a sample cutter in the garment industry; his mother took him to the doctor, hospital and physical therapy.
“They 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 sold him short. His mother had taught him to read and write but he was put in special education at school. He didn’t want to do what the group was doing; he wanted to sit and read. His mother was told to find another school. She did and there, the first grade teacher saw his abilities and persuaded the principal to put him in the second grade. He then went to fifth grade at a magnet school for gifted children and stayed in magnet programs through high school, even though that meant long bus rides every day.
“I was in the science magnet because I always wanted to become a doctor since I was little and had all those surgeries.” He graduated seventh out of 500 and got a full-tuition scholarship to the University of Southern California, in an eight year combined bachelors and MD program.
Winning a Beat the Odds award, he said, helped with living expenses and also shaped his medical goals. He attended a Young Advocate Leadership Training (YALT) at Haley Farm and got involved with CDF’s efforts to enroll children in Medicaid and CHIP by organizing a group of his premed classmates to put on health fairs to sign up children.
This sparked his interest in public health, and he added a year to his education to get both an MD and a Masters in Public Health. He lost a year when his mother was shot while taking out the trash, and he saw her through two surgeries. He graduated in May. A columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News quoted the former Associate Dean, “I’d see him struggling to get across the campus to be on time for the next class and I’d think, ‘What an incredible kid.’”
Jaime will see a gamut of people - children, adults, pregnant women, almost all low-income – during his three-year residency at a county hospital in Salinas. Then he wants to return home to practice in South Central Los Angeles with 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.
April Stevens Gung grew up poor with disabled parents – a blind mother and a father with a rare heart disorder. When she was 10, her father taught her to drive and to manage the family finances because he was ill and hospitalized frequently. Her mother was able to cook and clean, but could not work or do grocery shopping or errands outside the home. She and her parents and two younger siblings lived on his occasional salary and her mother’s Social Security disability payments in a poor neighborhood in Houston.
April’s burden increased at age 15 when her father died. The family moved in with her bed-ridden grandmother who lived nearby. April played a major role in caring for her siblings, then ages eight and six, and her grandmother. “It was rough for me. I felt trapped.”
She attended a struggling school where 50 percent of the students dropped out before their senior year. When she did well on a standardized test in her sophomore year, teachers started to notice and help her. “I poured myself into academics to be number one and use this as a way to get into a good college and get out.”
She received a Beat the Odds award in 1999, which was just the beginning of her relationship with CDF. Most impactful was a summer internship at CDF headquarters in Washington after her freshman year at Rice University.
“That was a huge turning point in my life. There were all these ridiculously smart people who could have been making a lot more money, but helping children was their passion. I began to map out my career goals not based on income. I realized I was driven more to social service than to computer science, which was what I thought I was going to do.”
The next summer, she interned at CDF’s Houston office and worked with its then-director Barbara Best in enrolling children in CHIP. She got her own brother and sister signed up, and Best became a mentor.
After college, April taught at a middle school in the Cabrini Green neighborhood in Chicago for two years. “In my personal experience, teachers were the ones who made a difference, and I did my best to be an example of a way out. I loved my kids and periodically still hear from some of them.” She went on to teach at a low-performing school on the South Side that the school board had targeted for a turnaround. Later, she became a trainer for Teach for America.
Last year, April completed a master’s degree in counseling at Vanderbilt University. Having seen first-hand all the non-academic problems poor children bring to school and the importance of college as a way out, she wanted to be back in school this time as a counselor. In 2012, she began work as a counselor at a public high school in Nashville. “CDF made helping children the top priority for me.”
Franceria Moore attended a high school in North Carolina equally split between Black and White students. After a racial incident divided her classmates, she helped form a student race relations committee that brought in trainers to facilitate discussions and started a Break the Barrier Day that encouraged students to eat lunch in the cafeteria with people they didn’t know.
“I think I recognized then that people listened to me—that they saw me as a leader—but I didn’t embrace it or know what to do with it. I cared tremendously about social and racial equality but it didn’t seem like other people my age cared. I felt like the odd man out.”
Then she attended a Freedom Schools training and thought, “Wow! I’m not alone! Other people care about these things too and they’re not all 40 years old.” From then on, Franceria embraced servant leadership—so much so that she’d rather be out in the community talking to people or mentoring a teenager than doing anything else on a Saturday night.
Her first Freedom Schools experience—in 2006 after her freshman year at the University of Houston—was with Katrina refuge children in Baton Rouge. Another intern, emotionally devastated by the storm, quit and Franceria taught her classes as well as her own. She had one student who lost it every time it rained.
By this time, her parents had divorced. Her mother drove a school bus for 12 years while getting an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree in educational counseling. With her mother as a role model, Franceria left Houston and began studying education at the Baton Rouge Community College, working to pay her way. She taught in a Freedom School every summer and became an Ella Baker trainer. This taught her “how to teach, how to present yourself as a young person to be taken seriously, how to be a person of integrity.”
She worked as a paraprofessional in the school system, giving workshops on life skills in the GED program. In one exercise, she wrote on a flip chart 20, 30, 40, 50 and asked the students what they saw themselves doing at those ages. One boy, 16, wrote “I don’t see myself” at every age. Not long after that, he stole a car, ran into a pole, and killed himself and two others. “He had no hope. That kept me up at night.”
Franceria became project director of the Freedom School in Baton Rouge run by the Desire Ministry and director of its after school program. In 2010, it shifted from providing services to supporting other nonprofits. “We heard you wanted to start your own nonprofit,” the director told her, and offered to help.
Her organization, iHope, runs a Freedom School in the summer, an afterschool program called “Think Tank” and a mentoring program. Franceria, now 27, says she always has in mind “returning the investment CDF made in me.”
Studying education at Miami University of Ohio, Tambra Jackson, who grew up in a middle class home in Indiana, was the only African American in many of her classes. She felt that something was missing in her preparation, and when she attended a meeting about Freedom Schools being launched in Cincinnati, she immediately realized what it was.
“They said they were targeting underprivileged children, and I wanted to be part of that.” She knew she wanted to teach children who were marginalized but felt her program, geared to white, middle class, monolingual children, was not preparing her to do that.
Much of what she saw that first exhilarating summer in 1995 as a teacher or ‘Servant Leader Intern’ as they are called in Freedom Schools impressed her – the books that reflected the children and their lives, the opportunities the children had to move around, release and channel energy, the emphasis on the interns being well prepared, and especially, the empowerment curriculum – “I can make a difference” - geared to both the college students and the children.
When she got back to college, her professors said, “What happened to you?” “I was very vocal that we needed to be more multicultural and social justice oriented.” Tambra, who has since managed a number of Freedom Schools, became convinced that its methods should be used in public education and that teacher education should be more like Freedom School training. “We have done a deep disservice to poor children in this country by not getting their education right.”
When Tambra went to graduate school at Michigan State University after six years of teaching, her research project looked at Freedom School training. “I was curious as to how CDF was able to take young people from diverse backgrounds and in one week teach them to deliver the curriculum in an impactful way when colleges often can’t do this in four years.”
One reason, she found, is giving the college students the same experience at the training that they are expected to give to the children by being loved on, cared for and empowered at Haley Farm. They also are given information about realities in the communities where the children live, from gun violence to lack of health care. “About 85 percent of the teaching force in this country is white middle class and female, most of whom haven’t experienced these realities and aren’t taught about them.” The emphasis on servant leadership is crucial, too, she says.
Since 2006, Tambra has been an associate professor of education at the University of South Carolina, and she is practicing what she has been preaching. Among other initiatives, she partnered with a predominately Black local school and teaches some of her courses there. Her students observe the school’s experienced teachers and get to know the children. Others do their student teaching there. After four years, the school earned a national award for academic improvement, and many of Tambra’s students have chosen to teach in urban schools.
From the age of three, when his mother died, De’Von Jennings had no stable or caring home. His father abused him mentally and physically and allowed others to abuse him. Children’s Services got involved when De’Von, then 11, became suicidal and was taken to the hospital. Doctors saw the marks where his father hit him with boards.
“I told them I fell off a skateboard, which I never rode a skateboard in my life, but I was scared.” His father denied the abuse and said that De’Von was mentally unbalanced. “They were messing with my head so much. I wish I was as smart then as I am now.”
In middle school, De’Von entered the foster care system. He was placed in a foster home, then bounced around from foster homes to relatives’ homes. None lasted very long. He liked school because “I wouldn’t have to go home or anything.” He threw himself into sports and extracurricular activities. Somehow, he held on to a measure of optimism. “Even when I was at my lowest, I always thought if I just keep these grades up, something good could happen down the road.”
The first “something good” was an English teacher in high school, Antonia Mulvihill. “She took an interest in me. She talked to me, brought me food everyday to school and took my writing skills to a new level.” De’Von thrived under her high expectations and attention. In the summer, he went to a job fair and landed an internship with a construction company because he dreamed of becoming a civil engineer. He was able to follow a hotel from idea to completion.
When De’Von was back in court caught in yet another custody battle, Mulvihill went to court and testified that it would not be in De’Von’s best interest to have to move again, and change schools for his senior year. The judge agreed.
In the summer of 2012, De’Von received the Beat the Odds award at CDF’s conference in Cincinnati, and also won a Bill Gates and a Horatio Alger scholarship. “I’m so blessed it all came together. When you break off from all that bad stuff, life is so good.”
He is now a sophomore at Arizona State University, studying civil engineering with a 3.51 GPA. He has worked for the City of Phoenix – Streets Department and the Arizona Department of Transportation as an engineer intern. “It was a rough transition from high school but I pulled it off. There’s so much stuff I didn’t know coming out of an inner city school.” He is well on his way. In late August, he flew to Hong Kong to spend a semester at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology as an engineering exchange student.
Indyasia Johnson describes herself as independent and determined—qualities she needed to beat the odds strongly stacked against her. The oldest of eight children raised by a single mother, she grew up in the rough West End of Cincinnati. Her uncle was killed when she was eight. She was held at gunpoint at 15 while her father was nearly beaten to death. In her world, teen pregnancy was so common and marriage so rare that until she began going to church as a teenager, she thought only white people got married.
Her mother was 18 when Indyasia was born, and her parents separated early on. Some of her siblings have different fathers and not all lived in the same household. Still, she had her hands full as the oldest and she thinks that “babysitter” should be included in a parenthesis after her name on her birth certificate. Part of her drive is to set an example for her younger siblings.
Her father maintained a relationship with her when he was out of prison, and she credits him for pushing her to get A’s in school. Her mother, who ran a day care center for a while, taught her to read and got her into a public Montessori school. “They teach you to think, to be independent, to manage your time wisely. There’s not always someone hovering over your shoulder telling you the next thing you need to do.” She had passionate teachers, she said.
Her mother became unemployed when she broke her ankle, needed surgery and could not walk well for several years. Indyasia worked two and three jobs from age 15. She paid her own cell phone bill, helped her siblings when they needed spending money, and paid for class trips.
She continued working and attending school after two men put a gun to her head and threatened to kill her if her father did not lead them to drug money. She had been visiting him, and the men drove up and forced the two of them into their car. They hit her father so hard that blood gushed from his head. After a terrifying ride, they dropped her off in a woods. Her father is now in prison, and she misses him.
One of her teachers wrote to the Beat the Odds selection committee. “Who would ever guess that the 4.0 transcript with several hundred hours of community service, a masterful yearlong senior research project, collegiate courses and intense involvement in extracurricular activities such as student council would belong to a girl who has had to struggle every day simply to get to school on time?”
Indyasia is now a sophomore at Lee University, thinking about going into teaching. She “felt really blessed to receive the Beat the Odds award. It’s just an indescribable feeling to be celebrated in that way.”
Romulus Johnson, now 39, sums up his youth this way: “Oh man, it was a lot of stuff. I went to an inner city high school, south central Los Angeles. My dad had substance abuse issues and was a single parent. We had extended periods of homelessness, and I spent time in foster care. It was just the general craziness of substance abuse and gambling issues.”
Romulus was born in Trinidad. When he was four, his mother was murdered by his half brother and he began living with his father who barely knew him. His father was an oil field worker and traveled extensively. They lived in Canada for a while and then moved to Los Angeles.
His father’s drug and gambling problems frequently left them homeless. At one point, Romulus and his three siblings went into foster care after they were discovered sleeping in a car. His two older brothers went into one foster home; he and his sister into another. “My brothers had an awfully rough time.” His foster parents, he said, were cold but didn’t mistreat him.
School became his home. “A lot of kids who don’t like their lives at home spend time in school and it pays off. I had some good supportive teachers and that was really the key.”
When Romulus was a sophomore in high school, only he and one brother were still living with their father. “One day my father said, ‘I’m tired. You guys got to go,’ and he kicked us out.” Fortunately his oldest brother, 20 years old with wife and baby, took them in to live in a one bedroom bungalow. “He did heroic work,” said Romulus, who got a job in a movie theater to help out financially.
Romulus took advanced placement courses, competed on the school’s academic decathlon team and won a medal for speech. Romulus was among the first group to be honored with a Beat the Odds award in 1990. The scholarship was beneficial and through CDF’s contacts, he got a good paying summer job each year during college as a paralegal. “Plus, I got to meet Alice Walker.” He attended Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon.
Romulus then studied AfricanAmerican literature at Princeton University for three years. He began to question whether he really wanted to be in graduate school and left for what he thought would be a year to work in nonprofits in Rhode Island and Washington, D.C. on community development and housing. This work led him to law school at New York University.
Today, Romulus lives in Harlem and is senior regional attorney for the Federal Deposit Insurance Company in New York. He advises banks on following federal law, including the law prohibiting discrimination in housing loans. His ailing father lived with him for two years to get cleaned up and stabilized.
Tanisha Jones attributes her journey from homeless child to school principal to her teachers, her own determination, and the Children’s Defense Fund.
In her early years, her crackaddicted mother kept moving Tanisha and her brother around to various apartments in Washington, D.C. Their most frequent “home” became homeless shelters that often ran out of food. “The line was long and if they ran out, you didn’t get to eat.”
Her mother made an effort to see that they didn’t have to change schools often, and school became Tanisha’s true home—and sometimes the only place she had a meal. When Tanisha was seven, her grandmother came to the school and took her and her brother home, providing stability and predictable meals for the first time in her life.
She missed her mother, though, and couldn’t understand why she never came to see them, “I would sit and wait for her. I just couldn’t believe she would abandon us.” Her father kept contact with her brother but not with her, for reasons she still doesn’t get. “For a while, I was thinking I wasn’t a good kid.” She later learned her grandmother had forbidden her mother to come by the house until she had gotten off drugs, which her mother eventually was able to do.
Tanisha put all her efforts into school. “I wasn’t the smartest kid around but I worked hard and teachers encouraged me. I went to school at 7:30 in the morning. I joined whatever clubs I could join and put myself into situations where I would be exposed to positive things. I’d stay at school until 6 or 7 at night. I couldn’t outsmart anyone but I progressed through sheer will.” She was there so much that some of her teachers became surrogate parents.
“When I got into high school, they started helping me find a way to go to college.” That’s how she came to know about CDF and the Beat the Odds Award. “That was a big day for me. Maya Angelou introduced me. I couldn’t believe she was telling my story.”
The following summer, CDF asked Tanisha to share her story in front of thousands of people at the “Stand For Children” rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial. “People came up to me afterwards and asked if they could share my story with others. It was mindblowing to realize that I was making an impact on others.” Ever since then, “when I get a call from CDF, I jump on the opportunity.”
Tanisha graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in communications and began working in human resources in corporate America. “I started feeling, well, not very fulfilled.” She went back to school to get a Master’s Degree in Education from American University. She became a founding teacher at the E.L. Haynes public charter school in Washington. She taught third grade, became a lead teacher and this fall, is the assistant principal. Tanisha is married and has a son and daughter.
“I know life can deal harsh blows sometimes but you should hold all children to high expectations because they can achieve.”
Jalaya Liles Dunn is a CDF baby. She grew up in Freedom Schools, stepped on every rung of CDF’s youth leadership ladder, and now is its Youth Leadership Director.
The turning points in Jalaya’s life came through CDF – the first during the summer before she entered 7th grade when she became a student in the new Freedom School program being piloted in Bennettsville, South Carolina, her home town. Jalaya’s mother was a teacher and while still in elementary school, little Jalaya set up a “school,” complete with blackboard, on her grandmother’s back porch for five children she recruited with flyers.
The college students who ran the Freedom School impressed her. “I liked the way they organized the curriculum and the way it was project based. We were reading and journaling. We did math projects with magnets and measuring lemonade. I thought, ‘This is smart. I could do this.’”
That fall, she continued as a student in the pilot after school program focused on reading. In the 9th and 10th grades, Bob Moses’ Algebra Project came to Bennettsville, and she became a student teacher. “That’s when I wrote my first curriculum. I got the instruction manual [for the graphing calculator], broke it down, and made a cover.”
A second CDF-inspired turning point came when Jalaya, a student at Spelman College, went to CDF’s national training for Freedom School teachers – the college students it calls servant leader interns - after her sophomore year. This was the point at which she was searching for her future identity. She liked education but wasn’t sure she wanted to be a classroom teacher. She wanted some sort of social political learning but wasn’t clear what that could be.
The training was an eye-opener. “Students from all over the country were there, and I realized this was bigger than Bennettsville. I realized CDF wasn’t just training people to run a summer program or teach reading. It was a contribution to a large social movement. It was about our lives, the way we are as citizens, the concerns we make our own. I come from a family of educators but that level of big picture vision I couldn’t have gotten anywhere but CDF.”
She served as a servant leader intern in a Freedom School in Bennettsville for a year, then became an Ella Baker trainer for four years – one of the college students who train the servant leader interns. Jalaya came to work for CDF in its Bennettsville office in 2003. Among other things, she ran the Ella Baker trainers’ training. Each new role seemed like a stretch but she grew into them. She received her Master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of North Carolina in 2008, and a year later moved to the national office in Washington, D.C.
As CDF’s Youth Leadership Director, Jalaya is developing a network of young people, some whom have been engaged in Freedom Schools and other CDF work, some not, for grassroots organizing around policies they and CDF care about – a list now topped by changing harsh zero tolerance school disciplinary policies that push children out of school into the pipeline to prison.
“I wouldn’t be the person I am if not for CDF,” she said. “Everything I do is about service and leadership and social justice. It’s just my way of life now.”
Arianna McQuillen had to overcome chronic asthma, the death of two grandparents, her mother’s mental illness, foster care, and bullying to get where she is today—a successful junior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“I think it was a lot of hard work on my part and on the part of people who cared about me and encouraged me,” she says. One of those caring people is Ivanna Omeechevarria, a CDF board member who brought Arianna into her home and heart through the Beat the Odds scholarship and leadership development program.
Arianna grew up with her mother in her grandparents’ home in Fairfax, Virginia. Asthma almost killed her in early childhood and kept her out of school from time to time and then her grandfather died. Still, Arianna remembers being a “happy, social kid” in elementary school.
Her middle school years were devastating. Her grandmother began wasting away from colon cancer, and her death deeply affected Arianna. During these years, her family’s poverty became hard to bear and at the same time, the bullying at school began. She was short, biracial, liked to read, wore glasses and had a wild triangle of hair, all enough to make her different.
Her mother went from “a healthy level of ‘I care about you’ to an unhealthy level of trying to protect Arianna from the world. “She wouldn’t let me go out to meet friends or go to school functions. Her paranoia kicked in and she had theories of how everybody was against us. I totally believed her. She’s my mother. She’s very intelligent. Then as I started high school, I began to question, ‘Oh wait, the illuminati are to blame for everything in our lives?’” One night, when Arianna was a sophomore, her mother took an overdose of sleeping pills. Arianna had to call an ambulance from a neighbor’s house because they couldn’t afford a phone. She went to live with her aunt for a while but her mother went to court, promised to go to therapy and got Arianna back. When she didn’t get treatment, Arianna became suicidal and refused to go to school.
“I reached out to one of the school counselors. If it hadn’t been for this woman, caring and interested, I wouldn’t have known what to do and wouldn’t have done anything.” She doesn’t want to say anything negative about the foster homes she lived in after that, but they were houses, not caring homes.
Arianna excelled in school and felt she could control academics. “Reading a book, doing math can be a very relaxing process. Not everybody likes to do physics or math problems but you do have a lot of control.” The counselor recommended her for the CDF Beat the Odds award. “It marks the point when my abilities came through—learning what I can do and the support they gave me.” It also marks the point she met Ivanna Omeechevarria, a CDF board member who offered to pick her up for a CDF event when Arianna’s foster mother couldn’t’ do it.
Ivanna had read Marian Wright Edelman’s book, The Measure of Our Success while attending Trinity College and when asked her dream at a conference on women leaders, she said, “working for the Children’s Defense Fund.”
A woman involved with CDF told her who to call. She became an intern for Mrs. Edelman’s special assistant. When the assistant left, Ivanna took her place and worked at CDF for five years. She left to raise a family but stayed involved and organized Beat the Odds events in Washington, D.C.
At each event since then, she and her husband have followed through with one of the D.C. recipients, always by keeping in touch and offering a place to spend the holidays and sometimes by providing a winter coat or spending money.
“These kids don’t have anybody sometimes. They’re off in college and they have no home base. They have ups and downs and gaps in social skills even though they are survivors and incredibly smart.”
In 2010, Ivanna and her husband hosted a preThanksgiving dinner for that year’s Beat the Odds scholars in their home. “I’d read Arianna’s story. I knew she was in a foster home with an elderly woman with three other girls far from where she went to high school. My husband and I looked at each other, ‘We have to do something.’ We said to her that night that we’d love for her to live with us if she wanted to.” Arianna said she was reluctant at first but “when I saw their sincerity, I really wanted to do it.”
The Omeechevarrias went through the process of becoming foster parents and Arianna moved in and has become a member of the family. They helped her with the transition to college and she lives with them during school vacations. “All of these kids have great potential. They’re amazing. But they can’t do it alone. They need a village.”
The sixth of 12 children of Hmong immigrants, Lily Moua faced the challenge of becoming a member of American society while respecting the wishes and culture of her parents.
When Lily was 13, her family moved from the Central Valley of California to St. Paul. Her father got a job in a factory; her mother in a bakery. She attended one of St. Paul’s better middle schools and then one of its worst high schools. “It was sort of a dumping ground for the most difficult students but it was in my neighborhood and I could get involved in activities after school.”
At the school, Lily saw things that should change and stepped into the role of a leader. “In my culture, a woman is not supposed to do that.” Lily’s parents do not speak English, which made it harder for them to understand American culture. Like many Hmong parents, they realized the importance of education, yet they expected Lily to come home after school to learn the traditional Hmong girl’s role of helping around the house and preparing to marry and raise a family. Her parents were angry and confused that she wanted to participate in after school activities that she thought could help her get into college.
Lily realized she and her family were not the only ones facing this conflict. In her junior year, she worked with a community advisor and organized meetings with the Hmong parents and students. The students explained why their activities were important to them and their futures. The parents expressed their fears that their children would abandon their culture and traditions.
“In the Hmong community, parents didn’t get involved in school. They didn’t know how, and they had a lot of kids so it was hard to make the time.” Through the meetings, parents began to realize they could get involved, voice their opinions about the school and the resources it needed. “It was impactful,” Lily said – so much so that her father now volunteers in political campaigns.
When Lily won the Beat the Odds award, her parents began to accept her as a leader. “It opened their eyes to, ‘Oh, the community does award people who do good things. It’s worth fighting for your rights and volunteering and doing good deeds.’”
She graduated second in her high school class and cum laude from St. Olaf College. She completed her master’s degree in public policy at the University of Minnesota. She now works as a human resources specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services in Minnesota. She also co-teaches for the Hmong Women’s Leadership Institute and mentors Hmong women and girls.
What stands out about Javon Mullings is his extraordinary determination.
When he was just six months old, he rolled off the bed and onto a hot plate on the floor, which caused third degree burns on his hand, the back of his head, and his back. He doesn’t remember the accident or physical pain, but the teasing he took from other kids about his scars made him embarrassed to turn his back on them, especially after he emigrated with his father and two older sisters from Jamaica to New York City when he was six years old.
“That’s when I felt the cruelty of the world,” he said.
They lived with his father’s sister in Brooklyn. His father, whom Javon calls his “rock,” found a job as a security guard and worked nights a long distance from the apartment. Javon saw less of him than he wanted and needed. “I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere.”
To fit in, he tried to be like the children who made fun of him by making fun of others, even though that didn’t feel right. He’d been the top student of his class in Jamaica but calls his achievement in elementary school in Brooklyn “nothing to write home about.” Stuck in the middle in middle school, he says, he “fell into a pit of obscurity.”
He didn’t like it there, and he moved to the top of his class in high school through a desire to make his father proud, the guidance of teachers and mentors, and a truly impressive will. The motivation came after one of his sisters dropped out of college and left their father with unpaid loans. “I actually saw him crying and that was devastating. This was the person I looked up to my entire life. I was not going to let him down.”
He worked on self-improvement. He learned a proper handshake. He improved his vocabulary and pronunciation by looking up words in the dictionary and emulating announcers on radio and television, including the National Geographic channel. He’d look up others’ opinions of books they read for school and “try to argue that opinion so I could practice speaking.”
Several teachers became mentors and helped him expand his horizons beyond the classroom into student government, the golf team and the robotics team. “My goal was to be valedictorian so I wasn’t going to pass up extra credit.” He signed up for Fast Track, which recruited students interested in learning about the financial industry, and got paid internships the past two summers, this summer at the Federal Reserve. He tutored students who asked for help.
Javon did become valedictorian and now is a sophomore at Wheaton College, where he’s gotten interested in bioinformatics and joined a campus service ministry. A high school teacher suggested the Beat the Odds scholarship and leadership development program. “I thank God every day that I encountered them. They gave me a medium to speak about what had happened and put everything in perspective. It really helped me. The scholarship too. My dad couldn’t pay for the education I’m getting.”
Tuan Nguyen emigrated with his family from Vietnam when he was six years old. His father had served as an officer in the Vietnam Army. When the Communists took over, he was forced to spend six years at a labor reeducation camp and lost everything. The Humanitarian Operation Program brought the family to the United States in 1994 so they could escape continued economic suffering in their homeland. They settled in Maryland.
Still, Tuan’s father was underemployed, working for years as a screen printer in a Tshirt factory. Tuan’s mother stayed home initially to take care of him and his brother. “I wouldn’t be the person I am today without my mom raising me so well. I owe a lot to both my parents.” When Tuan was about ten, his mother began suffering from severe arthritis, which made it painful for her to walk and impossible for her to work. Then his father’s hospitalization for liver disease threatened the family’s already fragile livelihood.
With housing assistance and by extreme thrift, the family struggled to get by. He and his brother learned about computers by finding discarded ones in the trash, taking them apart, and putting them back together. When he was in middle school, Tuan discovered that the YMCA had old computers donated to them. Because he helped fix them, he got one himself—his first Windows 98 computer. “I was very excited. I kept figuring it out, and eventually I got good at it.” In high school, Tuan worked stocking shelves at a CVS and helped fix computers and teach senior citizens how to use them at a nonprofit.
Initially, Tuan decided to go to a two year college because of the family’s finances. One of his teachers said that he could do more and helped him apply for scholarships, including the Beat the Odds Award. “CDF helped a lot financially and I got to meet my fellow winners and hear their amazing stories. I felt like they had more things to live through than I did.” He was proud, though, and so were his parents. “My story was in the newspaper, and my mom was showing it to everybody. She was so honored. It made their sacrifice feel less like a sacrifice.”
Tuan excelled in college, and has been working fulltime at a tech firm since his senior year. He graduated cum laude from the University of Maryland—Baltimore County. This summer, he received a master’s degree in Computer Science from Johns Hopkins University—Engineering Program for Professionals while working full time.
In March, he accepted a job as a software engineer at Raytheon Henggeler Consulting and he bought a home in Silver Spring, becoming the first homeowner as well as college graduate in his family. He wishes that his father, who died three years ago, were around to see what he has accomplished.
Kimberly Pearson grew up in a middle class home in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and studied elementary education at Oakwood University, a historically black college in Huntsville, Alabama.
She discovered the unique nature of Freedom Schools the year she wasn’t there. She and her best friend applied to be teachers, or servant leader interns as they are called in Freedom Schools, when Kansas City Freedom Schools staff came to the university to recruit in 2005, just as her senior year was ending. She decided against it because she didn’t want to go to Kansas City and instead took a job in a summer day camp in Huntsville.
Her friend called her from the training in Tennessee. “She said, ‘You’re missing it! Next year, you have to be here.’ She told me about camaraderie between the different people there and what the training was all about, the books and the music. At the summer camp, we didn’t have any training where we met other people. We weren’t really prepared. We were thrown in with the kids and it was ‘Keep them entertained and make sure they don’t get hurt.’”
She went the next summer after she’d spent her first year teaching in an elementary school in Jacksonville, Florida. Again, she saw a sharp contrast, this time with the school system’s professional development sessions. “Everything was so different— the positivity and love and unified energy. I’m naturally energetic and I felt like I belonged there.” Kimberly had studied creative and performing arts in high school, and she realized at the training that “I could bring who I was as Kimberly and impact children.”
Back in Jacksonville, she took what she’d learned and put it into her teaching. She let her creativity shine through. “It made me a better teacher. My students’ test scores went up and so did the sense of community in the classroom. A lot of disciplinary things I’d had to deal with in my first year went away.”
She then became an Ella Baker trainer and trained college students to become servant leader interns, which had an even more “profound” impact on her. “It focuses on servant leadership in a way that is so personal. It’s about taking pride in being a servant and being able to express humility in a culture that says ‘Me first.’ Being an Ella Baker trainer means putting the needs of community and children first.”
After five years of teaching, Kimberly, went to Andrew’s Theological Seminary and now is the chaplain at her alma mater. She says her Freedom School experience helped prepare her to build relationships and help students find their voices and purpose. During school holidays, she takes students to other parts of the country to do community service projects and acts of kindness for underprivileged children and families. She intends to start a Freedom School at Oakwood University because “Freedom School changed my life, and I want to be able pass that on.”
David Poms attended Davidson College in North Carolina, on a community service scholarship. His freshman year he tutored children in a community center on the other side of the tracks. When he learned that the center would be the site of a Freedom School that summer, he signed on for the training, not knowing what to expect.
“I thought it would be like a summer school with training, but the whole cultural experience was life changing.” Being Jewish, he was familiar to some extent with being in a minority. But until the training at Haley Farm, he had never been in a minority as a White male. “That put me out of my comfort zone and made me think about who I was.” David grew up in Montgomery County, Maryland. His father is a real estate agent; his mother a personal organizer for various clients.
The next summer, he worked as an intern at CDF in Washington and helped support the Freedom School national training. He realized from his two summers with Freedom Schools that he wasn’t cut out for teaching. During his senior year, he participated in CDF’s Young Advocate Leadership Training (YALT) program. He found he was more drawn to the “movement aspect” of child advocacy. Through YALT, CDF gave him not only tools, skills and a network for organizing but also “direction and purpose.” He considers himself a very fortunate person to be doing meaningful work.
David is now a leader of YALT’s Children’s Action Team in Washington that is building the capacity of young people, particularly high school students, to push for dismantling the Cradle to Prison PipelineTM. His day job is Program Manager at the Capital Area Food Bank.
He was struck, he said, that during the recent debate over school closures and school reform in the district, the voices of the young people affected were missing. He and a team of about 20 are organizing workshops in Columbia Heights for high school students this fall. “We’re going to replicate some of what YALT does in terms of exploring history and the contemporary system of mass incarceration and what we can do as advocates and activists.” One target will be the racial disparities in school discipline policies in the district.
He recruited five young people from southeast Washington to come to a YALT conference in July, convinced that the young people who are affected by gun violence and neighborhood dysfunction must be at the forefront of a movement to change these conditions. One of them, Timothy Dawkins, was shot to death on a street corner a month after the training.
“So many people at the funeral talked about how they were impacted by his mentoring and inspiration. I hope we can build on his legacy.”
When her mother died of colon cancer “childhood was kind of over” for Finie Richardson. At 13, she became the mother of the household, which included her father and 11 year old cousin. Her father, who worked as a custodian, took his wife’s death hard. Finie watched him change. “He struggled emotionally to overcome his grief and coped by using substances.”
Her mother had worked as a bus driver, and the income and stability the family had once enjoyed was diminished, “We struggled. Our lifestyle wasn’t as stable as I was accustomed to.” She watched a lot of things her parents had worked really hard for go down the drain including a home they owned in Maryland.
Finie’s father decided to move back to his childhood home in South Carolina, and Finie asked an aunt if she could live with her in order to finish high school in Maryland. “I felt comfortable with her and that allowed me to kind of be a kid again.” She’d always done well in school, especially in science – taking honors and advanced placement classes. She wanted to live up to her parents’ dream. They wanted her to have a college education, but the money they’d saved for it was gone.
With the help of a Beat the Odds scholarship in 1997, Finie attended Howard University and majored in biology. She wanted to be a doctor to help as many people as possible survive cancer. Her mother’s type of cancer, she learned, probably could have been cured if it had been caught earlier, and Finie became concerned with the disparities in health care between served and underserved communities.
Her father committed suicide when she was a sophomore and her grades suffered. She spent the rest of her years in college trying to pull up her grade point average, but a low GPA and other factors prevented her from getting accepted into medical school.
“I felt like, ‘Well, maybe that wasn’t my purpose,’” and she went to work at the National Institutes of Health in a lab doing cancer research for three years. She found her true niche when she learned that Howard was offering a master’s degree in public health. She went to Howard at night and worked at NIH during the day.
Since finishing her master’s degree, she’s been working at Howard, lecturing in its College of Medicine on health literacy and going out to family reunions and other gatherings in underserved communities to talk about how to collect health history information and what conversations to have with the doctor when they get a physical exam. She talks about all the issues that kept her mother from getting an early diagnosis and perhaps life-saving treatment, “fear of going to the doctor, fear of being screened. That’s what public health is… Prevention.”
Finie married and has a daughter. A second child is on the way. She says she “can’t thank CDF enough,” for believing in her.
Steven Rocker has this childhood experience “burned” into his memory: When he was seven, he saw his mother, who was pregnant and addicted to crack, stabbed and thrown down five flights of stairs in the Queens, New York, apartment building where they were living. There was so much blood it looked like a murder scene. She was jailed a few months later.
After that, Steven endured a year and a half of foster care hell—until he and one of his brothers were placed with a loving older couple, Zelma and Charles Mc’Iver. “They took us to church. They taught us how to do things. They let me know I was smart. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have known anything about what I was capable of.” He calls the Mc’Ivers his grandparents.
By then, he’d moved around so much that he’d fallen behind at school. He was put back a grade and into special education. “They’d take me out of class and put me in a resource room. It made me feel like I wasn’t as smart as the other kids. It took me a while but I got out. My grandparents had my back on that.” They taught him the discipline to work hard.
When he was 15, he and his siblings returned to live with their mother, who had gotten out of prison, quit drugs and spent three years going through every hoop to get them back. Steven wanted to live her but when he saw her, he didn’t even recognize who she was.
The change was difficult. His mother worked, and when Steven got home from school, he would cook, clean house and then study when the younger ones went to bed. He was the one who attended their parentteacher conferences. Still, he maintained a 3.7 average in high school.
A college counselor suggested he apply for a Beat the Odds scholarship. It was very painful, he said, to tell the story of what had happened to him. After winning Beat the Odds, television personality Rosie O’Donnell identified Steven as a “super kid” and hosted him on her show. She introduced him to the Kellogg Company, which awarded him a full scholarship to college. Still determined to prove that he was smart, Steven wanted not only to go to college but to an Ivy League school.
Steven got into Columbia University and “felt like everybody had to run around the track one time. I had to run around 10 times to catch up. I had to seek a lot of help. I practically slept in the library.” He graduated with a double major in English literature and political science. He went on to graduate Summa Cum Laude with a master of Business Administration from Monroe College while working at the New York Times as a statistician, his current job. He would like to start his own business and recently won a Business Plan of the Year award from the Masters of Business Administration Association for a website to help students communicate and think critically.
Winning the Beat the Odds award and the subsequent attention was “an amazing experience” that “catapulted me into another world,” Steven said. “The Children’s Defense Fund believed in me more than anybody. They’re always reaching out to connect with me. I couldn’t have gotten where I am without them.”
Poverty, alcoholism, bullying, and shame permeated Saira Soto’s childhood. Her father’s drinking was so severe that he couldn’t hold a steady job or pay for more than a one bedroom apartment for his family of nine, who came to Los Angeles from Mexico as undocumented immigrants.
Saira’s oldest sister supported the family working in a sweat shop. As each child grew older, he or she worked at whatever job they could find to bring in money. Her mother made sure there was a meal on the table even if it was rice and beans, and she walked them to school every day.
Saira didn’t like conflict and felt overwhelmed when arguments at home got loud. Going to school brought no peace either. She suffers from a skin disorder that produced open and visible sores. “It was physically painful, and the other kids made fun of me. I felt ashamed of what I looked like and embarrassed at what other people saw.”
She found one friend in a second grade teacher who connected with her and understood what she was going through. He also sparked her interest in science when the class did a project on the space shuttle. She began to do well in school and gained confidence. She studied hard, wanting to make up in academics for what she lacked in appearance.
A counselor who knew some of the details of her life and saw her potential for college nominated her for a Beat the Odds award in 1998. At the ceremony, she met Maya Angelou and Quincy Jones and Marian Wright Edelman. “She knew my story and gave me a hug that communicated such love and compassion. They were praising me for my hard work and the tough things I went through. In my speech, I was able to proudly say, ’Yes, I come from a poor community. Yes, my family suffered alcoholism. Yes, I have a skin disease. But I am smart, I am good hearted, and I will give back to the community.’”
In 2003, Saira earned a degree in environmental systems at the University of California at San Diego. She worked with migrant workers on water and air quality and pesticides, which opened her eyes to social injustice. “I really wanted to do something in the social justice realm, and I got a job at a union that represented workers in waste management.” She reconnected with CDF through the union’s involvement in advocating for health coverage and preventing cuts in the state budget.
She volunteered to be on the selection committee for Beat the Odds and two years ago, became program director for California’s Beat the Odds and Freedom Schools. “I feel very much a sense of pride to be part of an organization that I respect so much.”
Saira bought a home near her father who has given up drinking. He’s helping her fix it up.
Danny Tejada’s story reveals a strong commitment to mentoring young people from difficult circumstances like those he experienced growing up. When he was seven, Danny’s family was evicted from their apartment and eventually moved into a housing project in East New York—his mother, father, sister, and brother in a two bedroom apartment. “There was urine in the elevators, roaches all over the place. It was always dangerous to walk there at night.” His father worked as a stock boy in a supermarket; his mother stayed at home.
When he was 12, his grandmother died. She had been his support and her home his refuge. “After she passed away, my parents stopped being involved in our education and doings. They didn’t go to school to talk to our teachers; we didn’t get any praise for doing good.” They drank two six packs of beer a day and got into arguments that sometimes escalated into physical fights. Danny tried to be the peacemaker. Danny also tried to step in as a parent for his siblings. He considers his younger brother his first mentee. It was not a success. “He didn’t want to listen. It was frustrating. He’s 21 now, trying to get his GED.” His sister left home and is in foster care with a cousin. Danny takes her every other weekend and says he’s very proud of her for doing well in school.
Danny saw new opportunities when the Director of Pace University’s Upward Bound Program, which helps disadvantaged youth prepare for college, spoke at his high school. “I never even heard about college until they came along. I wanted to get into that program so bad that I got a recommendation from every one of my teachers.”
Accepted, he took classes during the summer and on Saturdays during the academic year. He wrote his college essay before starting his senior year. Doing a search on scholarships, he came across CDF’s Beat the Odds award. “I used to stutter a lot and speaking at the Beat the Odds celebration was the first time I spoke in front of a crowd. It encouraged me to speak more about my experiences and work on my voice.”
He attended Skidmore College. He majored in American studies with a focus in diversity. In college, he became passionate about mentoring, joining the Saratoga Mentoring Program, a division of Big Brothers, Big Sisters. After graduating, he continued mentoring through an emailbased program called iMentor. In it, he developed a relationship with Gaetan Lamy, a young Haitian immigrant who was a junior at a high school in Brooklyn. He encouraged him to go to college and worked with him on the college application process. Gaetan is now attending Long Island University in Brooklyn.
Two year’s worth of their email exchanges are collected in a book, Different Families, Still Brothers. In the introductory essay, Danny encourages those from impoverished backgrounds to mentor and those who don’t know what it’s like to be poor to do research to better help those in poverty.
Daniel now works at the Pace University Liberty Partnerships Program, which provides academic help, college and jobs counseling, social skills building, and cultural enrichment to high school students. He also teaches at Pace’s Upward Bound program, where he created an activism class called “Agent of Change.”
Michael Tubbs’ mother was 16 years old when he was born and his father was behind bars. The one and only time Michael saw his father – at age 12 – he was wearing an orange jumpsuit, looking weak and vulnerable. Michael grew up poor in Stockton, California; he and his mother lived on welfare the first five years of his life. Those three strikes – teen mom, incarcerated dad, poverty – put Michael at a very high risk of ending up in prison himself.
Now 23 years old, he has beaten those odds quite spectacularly – Master’s Degree from Stanford University, Truman Scholar, internships at Google and the White House, adjunct professor at a charter school, youngest ever City Councilman in Stockton. Equally impressive is Michael’s commitment to change the odds for all young African Americans, especially in his hometown, so that they go on to college and not to prison, the graveyard, or a life on the margins.
Michael attributes his own successful trajectory to his mother, grandmother and aunt, who valued education and pushed him to get A’s, to members of his church for giving him books and encouragement, and to government programs that improved his chances. Head Start, he said, helped him learn to read at an early age, the quality magnet programs in his public schools pushed him to achieve academically, and Pell grants enabled him go to college.
Michael credits CDF’s campaign to dismantle the Cradle to Prison Pipeline with shaping his purpose and developing his leadership. In 2009, when he was a freshman at Stanford, he attended a CDF conference on the Pipeline he found “eye-opening and inspiring.” He knew outcomes were different for poor kids but wasn’t sure why more guys he grew up with went to prison than to college. “The conference was the first place I got statistics and research. It was an ‘aha’ moment of ‘Oh, my intuitions are right. Individual choice plays a role but there are structural reasons too.’”
That summer, Michael was one of 20 young Californians CDF trained in organizing to stop policies that push children into the pipeline and to support programs that help them succeed in school. The training and conference “put a language and structure around my passion for children in poverty. It clarified my goals and sharpened my educational focus.” He majored in comparative studies in race and ethnicity and pursued a simultaneous Master’s degree in policy, organization, and leadership studies from Stanford’s School of Education.
Michael gained organizing expertise from “very empowering” Youth Advocate Leadership Trainings (YALT) at Haley Farm, where he learned skills and strategies and connected with other social change-minded young people from across the nation. While at Stanford, he founded the Phoenix Project (now Phoenix Scholars) that helps low-income high school students with the college application process, and he organized Save Our Stockton that trained young people to advocate at the City Council for policy changes.
Michael’s decision to return home and run for office after graduation was sparked by the murder of a cousin during his junior year White House internship, one of 55 murders in Stockton that year. “It really hurt me. I almost felt guilty because there I was at Stanford and the White House and my family at home is dying.”
This year, Michael teaches the college level courses at the Langston Hughes Academy, a charter school, expecting no less of his students than his mother expected of him. Among his initiatives as a councilman are establishing a Freedom School, developing a mentoring program in the school system, spearheading a re-entry project to employ 50 formerly incarcerated felons, developing a Boys and Men of Color Alliance to look at what local agencies can do, and creating a Black Community Crusade for Children in Stockton, modeled on CDF’s national crusade, to increase outcomes for all children.
Sheehan Whelan’s mother tried to sell her for drugs when she was a baby. Fortunately for Sheehan, the buyer was an undercover agent. She spent the next eight years in the custody of an elderly grandmother who did not care for her properly. “She palmed me off to other relatives as she saw fit.”
Sheehan saw her mother two or three times as a young child. “She had just come out of incarceration. I remember that. She struggled with bipolar disorder which she medicated with drugs and alcohol.” Later, at age 16, she talked to her mother on the phone. “Her mind was just sort of gone.” She died of a drug overdose when Sheehan was in college. “I feel bad that I never got a chance to extend her grace or forgiveness.” She doesn’t’ have a relationship with her father.
When Sheehan was in the third grade, living in Tyler, Texas, her great aunt rescued her and raised her as if she were her own child. “My great aunt and uncle took me to art classes and the Discovery Zone. They would stretch their pockets to provide me with a normal childhood.”
She considers her aunt, whom she calls her mother, “absolutely the most sacrificial person I know, just salt of the earth and hardworking.”
They moved to Tomball, Texas, when Sheehan’s aunt got a job as principal of the local junior high school. “She was kind of a pillar of the community and I had to rise to the challenge, have my character on point.” In high school, Sheehan played sports, sang in a local production of Les Miserables, took advanced placement classes, worked part-time, became active in her church, and put in many hours of volunteer service.
“I think a lot of people look at this like resume building. It’s really an opportunity to change your own heart by giving to others. Because of the situation I came from, I have a big soft spot for that.”
She didn’t think her “testimony was strong enough” to be awarded a Beat the Odds scholarship. But she applied through the prompting of her aunt and teachers. “They said, ‘You have had a resilient life. Give it a chance.’” Receiving it enabled her to go to Texas A&M rather than a local junior college.
Last year, she began attending graduate school at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M. She’s interested in international public service. Through the program, she is interning this fall at the U.S. Department of State, working for the undersecretary of civilian security and democracy.
Violence permeated Anthony Williams’ childhood. One uncle had been killed, another had been executed, a third was on death row, and his father is serving two life sentences for murder and armed robbery.
With this background, and the absence of a positive male figure, the odds were great that Anthony would be sucked into the Cradle to Prison Pipeline™. Instead he went on to graduate from college and become a productive, caring adult in his community. He attributes his success in life to his mother and father, a series of teachers, and the Children’s Defense Fund.
Anthony spent his early years in St. Louis. “St. Louis was violent and everybody had to be violent, or get taken advantage of. It was the way things were.” He wasn’t around the men from his father’s side of the family because they’d already been incarcerated by the time he was born. His father was jailed when he was an infant. “The males on my mom’s side didn’t take part in crime but they fought a lot. It was about being tough and not letting anybody push you over even if it was family. That’s what we saw coming up.”
His mother shared her childhood memories of a strong, moral family upbringing, giving Anthony a sense of what life could be. He visited his father in prison and regularly received letters from him. “He always said, ‘Be a leader, don’t follow anybody. Don’t be like me.’” Anthony knew early on that he wanted to pursue a different path, though he did not know what that would be.
When he was ten, he and his mother moved to St. Paul, where she worked as a housekeeper. The schools were more diverse and the education better, he said. “I can name a teacher at every grade level who encouraged me to stay on the right path, and empowered me to be a leader.” Anthony works with young people now recognizes that he “sees a lot of students who can’t name that teacher who believed in them, somebody you don’t want to let down.” His high school experience helped him to realize his potential for helping others, and motivating his peers.
The Beat the Odds award made college a real possibility for Anthony. “I had the expectations but not the means.” Being connected with CDF changed Anthony’s life in further ways. The Minnesota CDF office asked him to get involved with Freedom Schools and “that was a life changing event.” It helped him further understand social issues and their impact on the community. Freedom Schools National Training gave him a lasting lesson in leadership. “Learning about Ella Baker and her willingness to lead from behind, and not seek the spotlight has molded me into the person that I am today. Meeting inspirational people like Marian Wright Edelman and others impacted my life tremendously.” Anthony was involved with Freedom schools for 13 years, beginning as a Servant Leader Intern, and working over the years as Site Coordinator, Project Director, and Executive Director. In 2013 he started his own mentoring program for middle and high school aged males providing cultural understanding, leadership development, and peer mentoring.
Anthony graduated from the University of Minnesota and now coordinates the GED program for the Minneapolis public schools adult education program. He believes that in order to save the child, you must empower the parent. “We who believe in Freedom Can Not REST, and with what our children face today, can barely afford to blink…”
Myah Woods was a shy, nervous child, not one to speak out or speak up. Then she went to Freedom Schools.
Myah is from Bennettsville, South Carolina, Marian Wright Edelman’s hometown. She began attending Freedom Schools at age six and has literally grown up in this CDF institution—from student to Servant Leader Intern to Ella Baker Trainer. CDF has had a “huge impact” on her life—her knowledge, her skills, her choice of career and especially her drive to change the conditions in her community through the education of its children.
That timid child stepped out of her box. She says, “Freedom Schools was really the first place somebody actually saw I had some potential outside of academics. It was the first place I got a chance to develop leadership.”
She remembers the college students or Servant Leader Interns as they are called in Freedom Schools putting her in leadership roles in the finales, the end of summer event for parents and the public. “I never thought I had a speaking voice. They forced me to speak. The interns saw something in me that I didn’t see until I did it.” At 15, she became part of the junior leadership team. “We wrote the whole finale one year. The Servant Leader Interns tweaked it but we did everything.”
Myah attended Coastal Carolina University. Her mother was a teacher but she didn’t think she wanted to be one. She first majored in biology intending to become a pharmacist. The summer after her freshman year, she went to Haley Farm for the Freedom Schools National Training. She learned about leadership as servant leadership—“giving 100 percent without expecting something every time” and “not leading for your own purpose but to help others.”
After two summers teaching at the Freedom Schools in her hometown, she switched her college major to education. She decided that “working with children, you have a direct hand at changing the future.”
Now 23, Myah is an Ella Baker Trainer—a trainer of the servant leader interns—and a 5th grade public school teacher in Bennettsville. She estimates that about 75 percent of her teaching strategies come from Freedom Schools. She uses a cooperation contract as a method of behavior management to help students realize that they are responsible for their behavior and for one another. She set up her classroom for cooperative group learning so students are better able to resolve conflict and problem solve.
“When I had the interview to teach here, I was asked several questions and each of my answers was related to my Freedom Schools experience. That’s how I know how much Freedom Schools impacted me. Every question I answered with something from Freedom School, not from college.”
Myah said that as more children in Bennettsville attend Freedom Schools and as more of its teachers come out of Freedom Schools as she did, the culture of education there is beginning to change. “I sense more excitement. At our teachers’ convocation before school started this year, we sang “Something Inside So Strong.”
Itang Young and her four younger siblings were abandoned by their mother when she was nine years old. “It was a gradual thing. My mom dealt with a myriad of challenges at a certain point in her life and mine” – chemical dependency and off and on incarceration – “and it became too much for her to handle. We had no idea where she went.” Her father had already returned to Nigeria.
Itang and her siblings moved around to relatives in Houston, but none worked out. Itang’s oldest brother then left college to come back and take care of them. “I tell him to this day, ‘If it were not for the sacrifices you and your wife made for us, we would not be who we are today.’”
School became her safe haven. She also found joy in going outside and looking at the stars, and she attended a high school with a magnet program in meteorology and space science. That’s where she met the second important person in her life – the school counselor, Linda Phipps. “She was responsible for my going to college. I didn’t have any plans to go. I’d gotten into this process of living day to day.” Itang worked her way through high school, as a cashier at a Subway and other jobs after school and on weekends, juggling work, school work and extracurricular activities.
Phipps told her about the Beat the Odds scholarship. Itang said it sounded like a great opportunity but not for her. “I would basically have to share my story. Everyone knew me as this smart girl, quiet, introverted. People did not have any idea what I faced in my personal life. I didn’t feel normal because my family dynamics were different. The thought of putting myself in a position where my story would come out in the newspaper was disconcerting. I wasn’t sure how people would perceive me or what my family would think.”
The counselor said she should think about it. “You never know who you are going to help by sharing your story.”
Itang decided to apply, and it turned out a lot better than she feared. When she received the award in 2002, her family responded well, she was voted Most Courageous at the prom, and NASA’s Johnson Space Center offered her an internship. Itang graduated from Texas A & M with a degree in Industrial Distribution Engineering and took a job at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company.
After several years, Itang decided to go into the ministry, seeking a more tangible connection between work and community transformation. She had participated in CDF’s Young Advocate Leadership Training (YALT), which reinforced her conviction to be a social advocate and gave her an opportunity to sharpen her leadership skills. She received a Masters in Divinity from the Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, majoring in pastoral care and theology, and went to work at a non-profit that provides social services to at-risk youth and families.
“Looking back, I realize that CDF gave me the courage to share my story. Through sharing, we find a communal strength to press forward and stay inspired to make a difference in the lives of people around us.”