The Children's Defense Fund–California hosted their 23rd Annual Beat the Odds Awards ceremony on December 5, 2013, 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-Bell & Josiah Bell, Carol & Frank Biondi, Ruth-Ann Huvane, Kevin Huvane, Liza & Conan O'Brien, Reese Witherspoon & Jim Toth, and Laura & Casey Wasserman. Celebrity guests at the event included John Cho, Matt Damon, Senator Al Franken, Aimee Garcia, Jeff Garlin, Jennifer Garner, Katie Lowes, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Columbus Short, 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. Jennifer Garner presented Marilyn Bravo of Abraham Lincoln High School in Los Angeles her award; Reese Witherspoon presented Stephanie Fabian of Venice Foreign Language Magnet in Los Angeles her award; Jeff Garlin presented Alezaihvia Melendez of Animo Locke II Charter High School her award; Columbus Short presented Alexis Metcalfe of King Drew Medical Magnet High School in Carson her award; and Conan O’Brien presented Jerry Gonzalez of Miguel Contreras High School his award.

Thanks to generous support, each student honoree will receive a $10,000 college scholarship and support services including: private tutoring, one-on-one college counseling, ongoing mentoring, internship placements, life skills development, SAT prep, and week-long college tours at no cost.

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.

This year’s first honoree, Marilyn Bravo, continually gets honor roll grades, despite having limited family resources. Marilyn’s father, once a good worker and role model, succumbed to alcoholism and drug addiction, and Marilyn’s mother struggled to raise her and her brother alone. Although she speaks little English, Marilyn’s mother worked multiple jobs to be the sole provider for her daughter and son. As a result, Marilyn and her family moved around a lot when she was younger, depending on the kindness of others. Marilyn looks to her brother as a role model and aspires to graduate college with a degree in Bio-Engineering. She currently participates in two clubs that help inspire awareness of environmental and social issues: Peace Volleyball and Youth United for Community Action. She is also an advocate for the LGBTQ community, participating in her school’s Gay Straight Alliance. Throughout her accomplishments, Marilyn refuses to forget her humble upbringing and the sacrifices her mother has made to provide for her and her brother, stating “I won’t let her hard work be in vain.”

After continued domestic disputes between our second honoree’s parents, Alexis Matcalfe’s father was sent to jail, and never returned after his subsequent release. With their only source of income gone, Alexis’ family suffered economic and emotional turmoil. A self-professed “daddy’s girl,” Alexis was devastated and saw her grades plummet during junior high, as she started to become distant with peers and blamed herself for her father’s abandonment. Her family was forced to depend on food stamps, unemployment and Medi-Cal to survive. Five years later, Alexis’ life has turned around. She has earned perfect grades throughout high school and is viewed as a leader among classmates. Alexis participates in extracurricular activities such as the California Scholarship Federation and serves as president of the Youth Department and Youth Choir. Alexis credits her turnaround to her family, saying “I could not have done it without their support.”

The third honoree, Stephanie Fabian, has pursued a better life, despite being so far away from her family. Growing up Stephanie’s father abandoned their family, leaving Stephanie’s ill mother to care for her and her siblings. Unable to afford medical care, Stephanie’s mother took their family back to Mexico to live with relatives. Three years later, Stephanie returned to the U.S. to live with her aunt and uncle and receive the education she craved. Despite the constant struggle of being so far from her mother and siblings, and limited to communicating with them only twice a year, Stephanie has excelled in school and participates in track and the MOSTE program and volunteers for Just Keep Livin’ and Communities in Schools. Stephanie looks forward to the day when she will be in a position to help her family. “My mom is my motivation,” she says. “I’m doing everything to make her proud.”

Alezaihvia Melendez has not only changed her own path in life, but has inspired her mother to create a better life as well. Born to young parents, Alezaihvia’s mother and father often created an unsafe environment for their daughter, surrounding her with alcohol, drugs, and domestic violence. Finally after seeing Alezaihvia’s first perfect report card, her mother realized her potential and decided to create a better life for her children. After leaving Alezaihvia’s father, she struggled to make enough to provide food and shelter. This has inspired Alezaihvia to work even harder. She maintains a 3.72 GPA, and received an honors with distinction award for her academic achievement. Outside the classroom, Alezaihvia is president of the Science Club, an all-star defender on the soccer team, a field organizer at the Community Coalition, a member of the Building Healthy Communities initiative and at one point held down two jobs as a babysitter and assistant hairstylist. Alezaihvia is determined to prove the statistics and stereotypes about disadvantaged minorities wrong. She dreams of one day giving back to her community by becoming a doctor and providing quality, affordable medical care, saying “I will be somebody important in life… I will graduate high school go to college and become a doctor.”

The final honoree, Jerry Gonzalez, was headed down a dark path but was able to turn his lift around after receiving key support. Growing up Jerry’s father was not around, and his mother’s boyfriend was a poor role model, abusing Jerry’s mother verbally and physically. Though the relationship ended, Jerry’s built up anger and anxiety led him to begin lying and stealing while still in elementary school, and by junior high he was drinking hard liquor and using marijuana and other hard drugs. At age 14, Jerry was cited for possession of drugs and forced to enter a youth substance abuse program. With little support from his family, the program did not work and Jerry continued down a path of drugs and illegal activities. The court intervened again and this time sent him to the Sunshine Community Counseling Center. With the support of his counselor, Anne Brace, Jerry transferred schools, quit drugs and alcohol and severed ties with the bad influences in his life. Now Jerry dedicates his time to his schoolwork and mentoring others at the youth rehabilitation center he attended and advocates on behalf of immigrants’ rights and quality education and against police brutality. Jerry plans on attending college to develop his interest in art, music and social justice. He uses the negative influences in his past life to serve as motivation in proving them wrong. He states, “I want to prove wrong all those people who said ’you’ll just be another junkie or a person with no future.’ You only get one life, I intend on using it.”

As portrayed through each of their stories, all award recipients have clearly served a higher purpose, not only for themselves, but also for the lives of others. This event truly touched the hearts of all in attendance.

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