The Children's Defense Fund – California hosted their 22nd Annual Beat the Odds Awards ceremony last week, December 6, 2012, at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Beverly Hills, California.

The celebration honored five Los Angeles high school “stars” in recognition for their excellence in academic achievements, despite the overwhelming obstacles that stand in their way. The meaningful evening began with cocktails at 6:30pm, followed by a dinner and inspirational awards ceremony at 7:30pm.

The momentous occasion was hosted by the Children’s Defense Fund President, Marian Wright Edelman, along with supporters from Hollywood’s elite community and co-chairs, Katie McGrath & J.J. Abrams, Jurnee Smollett & Josiah Bell, Carol & Frank Biondi, Ruth-Ann Huvane & Kevin Huvane, Stacey & Charles King, Liza & Conan O'Brien, Reese Witherspoon & Jim Toth, and Laura & Casey Wasserman.

Celebrity guests at the event included Melissa Beoist, Alexis Bledel, Miranda Cosgrove, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alice Eve, Greg Grunberg, Mary McCormack, Michelle Monaghan, Holland Roden, Zoe Saldana, Elisabeth Shue, Hannah Simone and Trey Thompkins, among others.

Hollywood celebrities and supporters paid tribute to five inspirational high school students who “beat the odds” in achieving success in academic performance and accomplishments, while overcoming the tremendous challenges and personal hardship present in their daily lives. After remarks from actress Michelle Monaghan, Conan O’Brien presented Richard Kent of Belmont High School his award; Reese Witherspoon presented Yahydia Iñiguez of Helen Bernstein High School in Los Angeles her award; Elisabeth Shue presented Roneisha Pugh of St. Mary’s Academy in Inglewood award; and Zoe Saldana and Trey Thompkins presented fraternal twins Jade and Jalen Woods of Frederick K.C. Price III School in Los Angeles their awards respectively.

Thanks to generous support, each student honoree received a $10,000 college scholarship and other services including mentoring, internship placements, leadership and job training, general support from the Children’s Defense Fund–California, college counseling, SAT prep and a weeklong college tour provided by the Fulfillment Fund.

Since its inception in 1990, the Children’s Defense Fund Beat the Odds program serves to identify and reward remarkable high school students who have achieved excellence in their overall academic performance, community participation and personal goals. These impressive scholars have clearly demonstrated the qualities necessary to become future leaders. The Beat the Odds program further enhances student’s leadership abilities by awarding them through support, training and the honor of recognition at this high profile event.

ABOUT THE STUDENTS
The first recipient is Yahydia Iñiguez of Helen Bernstein High School in Los Angeles, California, who, at the age of 13, became homeless with her mother. Yahydia was forced to transfer schools several times. Though Yahydia had always been a focused student, the instability and constant displacement made academic success and extracurricular involvement very difficult, but Yahydia was not deterred. “While I was homeless, I felt like I had no control over anything in my life. I used every ounce of my being to keep it together and to do well in school,” says Yahydia. Despite the challenges of poverty and homelessness, Yahydia remains committed to academic success and maintains a 3.9 GPA. Though she was diagnosed with chronic asthma, Yahydia has beaten the odds as a successful three-sport student athlete in basketball, football, and track & field. Additionally, Yahydia serves her community as a member of the “Punk Rock Marthas,” a community service club that raises money and feeds the homeless through St. Francis Center in Los Angeles. She’s also the president of the Robotics Club and the Student Body President of her class. Because of her personal health challenges and those of her mother, Yahydia dreams of becoming the first person in her family to attend and graduate from college in pursuit of a degree in medicine. Yahydia hopes that her life will serve “to inspire others to succeed no matter what obstacle is placed in front of them.”

The next recipient is Richard Kent of Belmont High School in Los Angeles, California. Richard was born in the small fishing village of Los Cobanos in El Salvador. At the age of twelve, Richard came to the United States to live with his English speaking father whom he barely knew and communication was a struggle. Moreover, the separation from his mother and sister with whom he was very close was extremely difficult. Though he’d had very little schooling in El Salvador, Richard was placed in a 6th grade classroom and struggled to learn the English language. Richard acknowledges, “I worked so hard every single day because I felt as if this were my opportunity to become someone in life.” Though he had to repeat the 6th grade, Richard focused on his studies, attended tutoring sessions, and had a successful academic year. When Richard’s mother, sisters, and step-father moved to the United States, the family was separated again when his mother and step-father decided to divorce. Richard’s mother left her children in the care of her ex-husband, and Richard became the primary caregiver for his younger siblings. Though caring for his sisters is a major responsibility, Richard’s college advisor reports he is “one of the top students in at Belmont High School.” Richard’s determination, work ethic, and maturity have drawn the attention of adults, peers and his community. Richard was selected to serve on Belmont High School’s “School Site Council,” and works with the faculty, staff, administrators, and parents to make the best decisions for the Belmont High community. When Richard attends college, he will be the first in his family. Richard is certain that academic achievement is the key to his future success in his life and feels very lucky “to have access to an education.”

The evening’s third recipient, Roneisha Pugh of St. Mary’s Academy in Inglewood, California faced the harsh realities of both life and loss at an early age. As a newborn, Roneisha was placed in the care of a grandfather who cared for her for three years until he met an untimely death due to complications from AIDS. Roneisha and her brothers were sent to live with an aunt who cared for her until 2007 when she lost her life to cancer. Though Roneisha enjoyed a close and loving relationship with her aunt, she admits that the physical, mental, and emotional abuse that she and her brothers suffered at the hands of her aunt’s alcoholic husband created an unforgettably volatile living environment. Left in the care of her uncle after the passing of her aunt, Roneisha recalls the escalation of violence and abuse, and acknowledges that her life “started spiraling out of control.” With her grades slipping, her confidence shattered, and her dreams of becoming a doctor fading, Roneisha grew tired of her domestic situation and finally reached out to family for safe harbor. Now living with extended family in a loving and supportive home, Roneisha has become an exceptional role model for others in her community. Recently she won an award for completing 100+ service hours. She was also selected to be the ambassador at her school for her grade level. She is excelling academically and is resilient and insightful. Though Roneisha is proud of her decision to eliminate the violence surrounding her, she lives each day with the guilt of leaving her older brothers who chose to remain in the home with their abusive uncle. Although Roneisha worries about the toll the abuse has taken on them, she acknowledges that “getting out of that situation was the best thing that has happened to me.” Roneisha understands, “I wouldn’t have been able to protect them because I couldn’t even protect myself.” Inspired by the loss of her grandfather and aunt to incurable diseases, Roneisha’s three goals in life are “to go to college, become a doctor, and to be successful”. “Every day,” says Roneisha, “I am beating the odds and becoming one step closer to my goals.”

Fraternal twins Jade and Jalen Woods of Frederick K.C. Price III School in Los Angeles, California, are the evening’s fourth and fifth recipients. At the age of 4, Jade and Jalen’s parents separated, forcing their mother to move the fragmented family to a shelter in Arizona. When they returned to California, Jade and Jalen were bounced between a mother and father who struggled to remain civil for the sake of their children. The divorce, the displacement, and the acrimony between their parents made focusing on school very difficult, but their strong faith and resilient spirits helped pull them through periods of great sadness and depression. Jade is the Chairperson for the Children’s Defense Fund-Los Angeles Youth Policy Advisory Committee. Jade and Jalen both excel in athletics, but a broken growth plate in Jalen’s knee threatened to deter his dreams of pursuing athletics in high school.Through hard work and perseverance, Jalen worked to restore his knee. To the surprise of his doctors, Jalen’s bones healed and began to grow. To date, the star athlete has earned over 45 trophies and MVP awards for basketball. Not to be outdone, his sister Jade serves as 2010-2011, 2011-2012, and 2012-2013 Captain of the Frederick K.C. Price School Varsity Volleyball team and is shining in her sport as well. Despite a strained relationship with their father, Jade and Jalen have relied on each other and a committed network of family and community members for support. They both maintain 4.0 grade point averages and are admired for their leadership abilities. Having lost three grandparents in short period of time, Jade and Jalen do not take life for granted. Each has crafted a plan for success that includes maintaining their current GPA’s and remaining at the top of their class. Through their trials, Jade and Jalen have learned “to no longer be the victim, but the victor!”

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