Youth Justice


How does a child endure unspeakable hardship and still manage to succeed? What does it mean to save rather than give up on a child? When you read the stories of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF)’s Beat the Odds® award recipients, you’ll find the answers. Too often we hear about teens getting into trouble, dropping out of school, getting involved with drugs, crime, and gangs, or becoming parents too soon. Yet thousands of children overcome tremendous obstacles like these and poverty, homelessness, hunger, abuse and neglect by adults, parental incarceration, and more every day. Each year, CDF takes time to honor some of these inspiring high school students through our Beat the Odds scholarship program. We provide them with scholarships up to $10,000, a laptop computer, and, most importantly, recognition of what they’re doing: beating the odds.

Twenty years ago, the first Children’s Defense Fund Beat the Odds awards event was held in Los Angeles. Today, we celebrate resilient young people in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Houston, Dallas, New York, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C. More than 600 young people who have persevered despite family breakdown, homelessness, parental incarceration, drug and alcohol addiction, neglect and abuse have been honored and been able to go on to college and become productive citizens. Some of them are now doctors, lawyers, teachers, Peace Corps volunteers, and responsible parents. They are living proof that no one should ever give up on a child.

Young people are being honored in Los Angeles and New York this month, and a few weeks ago we honored five more extraordinary Beat the Odds recipients in Washington, D.C. Chelsea Kraatz didn’t have any formal schooling until the 11th grade. Her mother homeschooled Chelsea and her two siblings, but by the time Chelsea was in fifth grade, she had stopped teaching her. After she divorced Chelsea’s alcoholic father, who had been sexually abusing Chelsea for years, her mother suffered from depression and was unable to pay the bills or provide food and other essentials for the family. During the day she would often leave Chelsea and her siblings alone, where Chelsea struggled to try to teach herself. Today, living in her aunt and uncle’s stable and loving home and finally attending school, Chelsea has caught up with her peers and has a 3.5 grade point average.

Arianna McQuillen was raised in poverty by a single mother who suffered from depression and attempted suicide when Arianna was in sixth grade. Arianna was eventually removed from her home and placed in an alternative residential program where she received treatment and academic support. She is now living in a foster home, and though she was once bullied by other children for being biracial and poor, she is now an energetic, enthusiastic student who excels in school, especially her science and math classes. She has a 3.9 grade point average, is taking nearly all Advanced Placement (AP) courses, and plans to study engineering in college. Her eye is on MIT.

Nick Mugge’s life changed completely the day in ninth grade when he found his mother unconscious and unresponsive on her bedroom floor—the victim of a catastrophic ruptured brain aneurism and stroke that left her completely incapacitated. Today, Nick’s mom can speak, but she cannot feed herself, walk, or even move from her bed to her wheelchair. While his father is working two jobs to provide for the family and the medical bills, Nick is responsible for many of his mother’s daily caregiving needs. But he remains in the top 10 percent of his class, with many volunteer and extracurricular activities, and has learned important lessons: “I will always know how to handle any situation, no matter how horrifying or scary.”

During one of the many moves Asia Smith made with her mother, they lived in her grandfather’s condemned home, which had no electricity or bathroom. Even under those conditions, living with her grandfather, who was a father figure to her, was still better than the home they later shared with a family friend where Asia was physically, emotionally, and sexually abused. When Asia was 11, family tragedy struck: her mother was convicted of murdering her grandfather. Asia’s mother is now serving a 30–year prison term, but Asia has finally found a safe, stable home with a friend’s family. Today she is an active and hardworking high school senior taking honors classes and an advocate for other teenagers in the foster care system.

I’eisha Williams is a survivor of family violence and homelessness, and when she graduates in May, she will be the first person in her family to finish high school and go on to college. As a young child I’eisha often lived in fear of her father, who she once saw attempting to strangle her mother with a phone cord. Soon after that, he was sent to prison, leaving I’eisha’s mother to care for five children on her own. The family was often uprooted, living in hotels and emergency shelters, but with her mother’s encouragement I’eisha sought out work and tutoring opportunities that have helped her succeed in school and brought her closer to fulfilling her dream—becoming a pediatric nurse.

These are the kinds of inspiring and resilient young people and future leaders the Children’s Defense Fund has been honoring for the last twenty years. I hope sharing their stories will encourage other community leaders and citizens to help celebrate more youths like them. To learn more about the Beat the Odds scholarship program, visit