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 pre-Thanksgiving 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.”