Youth Justice


“Something that I’ve learned from my mentor is always pay things forward, not necessarily with money, but with actions and deeds. You’re not alone. You’re not the only one out there in a bad situation. Beat the odds and you’ll succeed.”

Maggie Hobbins is just a senior in high school, but she already knows a lot about making it through a bad situation. She has struggled with a learning disability since first grade and spent years in special education classes. Other students bullied her because she couldn’t read well or afford brand name clothes. Challenges in school were hard, but challenges at home were even worse. Her alcoholic mother was emotionally absent for much of her childhood, and her father, a disabled Vietnam War veteran, had many health problems that often made it difficult for him to work. When her family became homeless after he lost his job, they moved into a camper on a friend’s property. What they hoped would be a temporary solution lasted two years.

When Maggie was nine years old, her parents finally found an affordable house to rent again, and things seemed as if they might be looking up at last. But just a few months later her father collapsed and died of a massive heart attack. For the next two years her mother sank into such a deep depression worsened by the drinking that she rarely got out of bed, and Maggie was essentially left to raise herself. She got herself to school on her own, took care of the house, and was the one to make sure her mother ate and bathed. She looks back at that period as the “dark days” of her life. But even then Maggie showed an extraordinary resilience far beyond her years: “You can’t just sit there and be like, ‘Oh, poor me. My dad’s dead. My mom is depressed and she’s a drunk and she’s not there for me,’ or, ‘I’m dyslexic and I can’t read as well as other people . . .’ So why not push myself further and change myself—because other people can’t change you; you have to change yourself.”

Maggie kept pushing herself—and her positive spirit and belief in herself paid off. After an intervention from Child Protective Services, Maggie’s mother finally got some of the help she needed and was able to keep custody of Maggie. When Maggie was in sixth grade, a caring landlord and mentor offered her $100 if she made the honor roll all four quarters of the school year. Maggie was already a determined and serious student despite her learning disabilities and troubles at home, and this generous promise gave her just the extra incentive she needed. She made the honor roll every quarter that year and every single quarter since.

As she kept on excelling in school, by the end of eighth grade she was moved into standard education classrooms. Today, Maggie takes Honors and AP classes and has a goal of studying criminal justice because she wants to help others. The same mentor who encouraged her to make the honor roll also sponsored her attendance at a Christian summer camp she fell in love with, and after returning as a camper for many years, she now serves as a junior counselor. She is already looking forward to what comes next: “There’s college to go to. There’s graduate school. You’re never done learning . . . It’s just something I want in my heart. And I’m going to try my hardest to get it.”

Maggie’s inspiring story has made her one of this year’s Washington, D.C.-area winners of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Beat the Odds® scholarship awards, given each year to high school seniors in eight cities who have overcome tremendous adversity. For over 20 years, the Beat the Odds program has supported more than 700 students. This leadership development program provides each recipient a $10,000 scholarship, laptop computer, guidance through the college admission process, and an invitation to join CDF’s servant leadership training programs. It also allows young people like Maggie to serve as role models for others, and for Maggie, this is one way of paying her own success forward. As she says: “I’m sure there’s kids going through everything I went through—maybe not as severe, maybe more severe—but for me to win and for other kids to see it, I think it will instill hope, because there’s nothing stronger than hope, other than love. And if I can beat the odds, why can’t they? They can see from my example that, ‘Oh, I don’t have to be this way,’ so they can make the choices and take the path that will benefit them—that will put them out of their situation and lead them to success.”

Right now there are millions of young people like Maggie still waiting for just one caring adult or mentor to step in to help them beat the odds too. If you have the chance to be that adult for a child in your community—grab it! Learn more about how you can support young people beating the odds across the country through the Beat the Odds scholarship program.

 Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.