The Children’s Defense Fund–California hosted its 25th Annual Beat the Odds™ Awards ceremony on December 3, at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills. The celebration honored five Los Angeles high school “stars” – David Cho, NiTasha Denson, Stephanie Gamino, David Sanchez, Vincent Zamarripa – in recognition of their excellence in academic achievement, despite the overwhelming obstacles that stand in their way.
“Everything that has happened to me up until now is a part of who I am, and these struggles are the catalyst which have changed me forever,” said Vincent Zamarripa during his acceptance speech.
All five honorees expressed appreciation for the support of Children’s Defense Fund – California. CDF-CA staff has worked closely with the students since their junior year in high school, providing private tutoring, one-on-one college counseling, ongoing mentoring, life skills development, SAT prep, and other needed skills at no cost.
“CDF-California is committed to making sure these students have the resources and support needed to not only graduate successfully from high school and college, but to become our next generation of youth advocates and community leaders,” said Executive Director Alex Johnson.
Honoree Stephanie Gamino told the audience that growing up in an environment where college was rarely mentioned and in a family where no one had ever attended, she didn’t think college was an option for her. With the help of organizations like CDF-CA, Stephanie now believes her future looks bright and she wants to inspire others.
“I would like to help students stay out of the streets and give them a reason to go to school, because education is crucial in the development of who we are, and that knowledge that will take us further,” she said. “I believe that fewer students behind bars and more on the graduation stage can make this world a better place.”
Conan O’Brien, who had been to the event several times in the past, said he brought his children this year so they could “see what is possible when you work hard and believe in yourself.”
“This is my favorite night of the year,” O’Brien said. “In a town that loves to celebrate itself, tonight we celebrate young men and women who have overcome incredible odds and really deserve to be honored.”
The Children’s Defense Fund President, Marian Wright Edelman, hosted the event along with support from co-chairs, Katie McGrath and J.J. Abrams, Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Josiah Bell, Carol & Frank Biondi, Ruth-Ann Huvane, Kevin Huvane, Katie Sharer and Mark Mullen, Liza and Conan O’Brien, and Reese Witherspoon and Jim Toth. O’Brien served as the night’s emcee, with co-chairs Abrams, Kevin Huvane, and Jurnee Smollett-Bell pulling double duty as presenters and speakers throughout the program. Additional special guests included Gwendoline Christie, Mary McCormack, Margaret Qualley, Andy Richter, and Jussie Smollett.
Each honoree’s story was told through a special video presentation, directed by a prominent member of the entertainment community. John Cho, best known for his role in the Star Trek films, directed the reel of Jaegeun David Cho.
In Cho’s video, his mother Lee Mi-kyung explains why she made the hard decision to send David away from his homeland in Seol, South Korea to China with people he did not know, then finally reunite with him in the United States. She is grateful for the opportunities that David has now, including the support of the Children’s Defense Fund – California.
“Now my son has hope for the future,” she said in the video. “There is confidence now.”
Thanks to generous support of the CDF board and donors, each student honoree will receive a $10,000 college scholarship. Honoree Ni’Tasha Denson, who is legally blind in one eye, said the scholarship would help her reach her goal.
“Being in the foster care system and dealing with my glaucoma, the odds of me going to college were not in my favor,” she said. “However, in the eighth grade I made the decision to be a part of the 10% of foster youth who attend college, and more importantly, be among the 3% that actually graduate.”
David Sanchez is also optimistic about his future.
“I stand hopeful for the future and intend to not let up on the hard work and determination,” he said. “It is this and the continued support of my family, and from the Children’s Defense Fund, that will lead and guide me to achieve my dreams of one day becoming a doctor.”
Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, 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 demonstrated the qualities necessary to become future leaders.