Five New York City teenagers walked the VIP carpet on Monday night at The Pierre on Fifth Avenue, at the annual Beat the Odds Gala, an event that celebrates local students who have overcome exceptional adversities along their path to educational and future success. Aesron Jeremiah, 17, of William Maxwell High School in Brownsville, Elham Chowdhury, 17, of Bronx High School of Science in Norwood, Ruben Suazo, 17, of Leadership and Public Service High School in East Flatbush, Sashagale Moore, 18, of Queens Preparatory Academy in Jamaica, and Shirleyka Hector, 17, of International High School at Lafayette in Canarsie, all flashed proud smiles for the pool of press photographers with the confidence of seasoned pros. The teens were followed by a few celebs, like Star Jones, who hosted the event, Film maker Spike Lee and his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, Rosie Perez, The Cars’ Ric Ocasek and his wife, the supermodel, author and actress, Paulina Porizkova, and many more, but they were the stars of the evening and did not shy from the frenzy of flashing from the cameras. The five teens brought the kind of style and glamour that is indigenous to their age group, each one sporting their own signature accent; Suazo looked preppy-chic with a bow tie and glasses, and Moore’s lustrous long hair was accented by a shaved side haircut, with Jeremiah, Chowdhury and Hector all dressed with understated elegance.
The Children’s Defense Fund’s Beat the Odds program honors outstanding high school students who have overcome tremendous adversity, demonstrated academic excellence and given back to their communities. Started in 1990, the program identifies and rewards young people who have experienced significant hardship in their lives, and supports and trains them to become future leaders in adulthood. CDF holds five high-profile awards events to send a clear signal that someone does care and understands what it takes to stay in school and do well while coping with adversity in their personal lives. Marion Wright Edelman lost her father when she was 14, and his final words to her were “Don’t let anything get in the way of your education.” Edelman clearly took those words to heart, devoting her entire professional career to advocating for disadvantaged Americans and founding the Children’s Defense Fund.
Each scholar shared their inspiring stories with the guests in attendance, and spoke about the personal challenges they faced along their path to success. Speaking of the challenges of homelessness, Jeremiah noted, “There are more than 84,000 homeless students in New York City. It’s tough for us to continue following our dreams in our situation. That’s why supportive programs are important. Without them, I wouldn’t be standing here tonight.” Chowdhury shared that, “As a Bengali Muslim male growing up in America, it has not been easy because every day, I have to face the challenges of the intertwinement of race and religion with socioeconomic status. But I wake up every day and emphasize the importance of maintaining a positive and resolute disposition. It’s vital to have support and a drive so your dreams can one day come into reality.”
Speaking on the challenges of being an undocumented immigrant, Suazo noted that “these challenges formed cracks and holes in what I call my ‘pathway of life’…but tonight I stand here tall with the hope, faith, resilience and the pursuit of happiness that have fixed such pathways. It is my cape, my shield, it is my pride.” Moore noted, “I struggled a lot throughout the college process due to the fact I wasn’t able to receive as much help from my college counselor due to the fact it was a ratio of 1 to 100 students to one counselor…but, with the help from Beat the Odds, my mind has opened up to more colleges…[and I’ve been pushed] to strive for greatness.” Hector shared that, “as a little girl in Haiti, my mother emphasized on the value of a higher education every day–no kidding, I mean every day…When I moved here after the devastating earthquake in 2010, life was a bit rough for me, but I survived thanks be to God.” She continued, “Although I left my mother behind when I moved here, I still get that push to move forward from my dad. My dad, just like my mother, pushes me to learn as much as I can and take my education seriously.”
The Children’s Defense Fund has produced short documentaries on each of the teen scholars that are an intimate look inside the lives of these young people. Each teen discusses the unique challenges they have faced during their childhood and adolescence, and they talk about how the Beat the Odds program has helped them and given them hope for their futures. The video shorts can be viewed at the Children’s Defense Fund’s YouTube channel here: https://www.youtube.com/user/childrensdefense/videos. The program is held each year in California, Washington, D.C., Texas, Minnesota, New York, and Ohio. Not only do these awards events celebrate the scholarship recipients, they demonstrate that behind each successful child is at least one caring adult. They also are meant to inspire community leaders and citizens who want to help children struggling to overcome adversity.
The very stylish and young auctioneer, CK Swett, brought excitement to the evening’s program auctioning three lots, including a bottle of champage, a minute-long personal greeting from Samuel L. Jackson—which was purchased by guests twice for a total of $15,000, and the chance to attend a New York Knicks game and sit courtside with Spike Lee. Lee helped drive the final price up to $13,000 by sweetening the deal to include a pre-game dinner at Madison Square Garden. The event, hosted by television personality Star Jones, also honored renowned stage and screen actors LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Samuel L. Jackson, and business leader Roger W. Ferguson, Jr., President & CEO of TIAA-CREF, for their longstanding commitment to CDF’s Leave No Child Behind® mission. Special guests in attendance included Children’s Defense Fund Founder & President, Marian Wright Edelman; Gala Co-Chairs/Presenters: Malaak Compton-Rock, Paulina Porizkova, Marva Smalls, Ric Ocasek, Spike Lee, Tonya Lewis Lee, Rosie Perez, Hill Harper, June Ambrose and Emme Aronson, among others.
The Children’s Defense Fund 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. CDF provides a strong, effective and independent voice for all the children of America who cannot vote, lobby or speak for themselves. The CDF pays particular attention to the needs of poor children, children of color and those with disabilities. CDF educates the nation about the needs of children and encourages preventive investments before they get sick, drop out of school, get into trouble or suffer family breakdown. CDF began in 1973 and is a private, nonprofit organization supported by individual donations, foundation, corporate and government grants.