ST. PAUL, Minn. (April 13, 2015) — For over 20 years, Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota (CDF-MN) has recognized extraordinary young people who have overcome tremendous adversity in life to achieve academic excellence, demonstrate leadership in their communities, and aspire to attend college by awarding them with Beat the Odds scholarships.
This year, five of the most deserving Twin Cities-area high school students have been selected to receive a $5,000 scholarship each. This year’s scholarship recipients are: Martell Person, St. Louis Park High School, St. Louis Park; Randy Mathews, North Community High School, Minneapolis; Kao Soua Yang, Johnson Senior High School, St. Paul; Nasro Mohamed, Harding Senior High School, St. Paul; and Makayla Hout, Como Park Senior High School, St. Paul.
CDF-MN will recognize the five students at its annual Beat the Odds® awards celebration on Saturday, April 18. The celebration will feature Kare 11 news reporter Jana Shortal as emcee and Children’s Defense Fund founder and president Marian Wright Edelman as keynote speaker. Mayors Betsy Hodges and Chris Coleman, along with St. Louis Park Councilmember Jake Spano, will present the awards to the honorees.
Tickets to the celebration are available here. Proceeds go to help support CDF-MN’s ongoing efforts to shape policies and change the odds for all children. The Beat the Odds® awards event is an evening of fun and celebration that makes a difference in the lives of young people.
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.
St. Louis Park Senior High School, St. Louis Park, MN
Nominator: Joy Esboldt, Spanish teacher and equity coach
In spite of the struggles he has overcome in his young life, Martell Person does not immediately strike those who meet him as a fighter. In fact, he presents as a quiet, thoughtful, gentle young man, who listens more than he speaks. His Beat the Odds nominator, Joy Esboldt, describes Martell as both. He is “a remarkable young man,” she writes, “with a spirit that out-fought incredible odds, a humble and powerful presence of care, and a leader committed to the betterment of others and community.”
An African and Native American boy, Martell’s young life was filled with poverty, homelessness, drugs and instability. His father was absent most of the time and his mother was consumed with her own struggles. His family moved around a lot. When he was unable to live with his mom, Martell stayed with friends and family. Martell admits his childhood was not easy. His family, he
says, was “lower class and non-privileged.”
They didn’t have enough food or money and couldn’t make ends meet. It was a childhood of “going without.” Yet, for Martell, his struggles are not his focus. When he talks about himself, he tells his story with grace, respect and even gratefulness for those in his life. His harshest criticism is to say, he thinks having a father figure would have made his life easier.
“When people ask me about my life,” he says, “I tell them I’m okay, because I am. I find a way to get through it.”
One of the ways he copes is with art and music. “I like to draw,” he explains, “I have a wall of drawings that I have done.” Drawing allows him to express himself and music, he says, inspires him. School also helps him “get through” life. Although he hasn’t always, he now recognizes the importance of education. Plus, he says, “school is a good escape to process things. You never know how things are going to be when you go home. All of my teachers have been good. They all cared. My friends are there. I appreciate school.”
Martell is undecided about the college he will attend but he knows he wants to study art or graphic design. He says his two sisters amaze him. “Coming from where we came, it was hard getting out. Seeing them go to college and do something with their lives is inspiring.”
Martell is equally appreciative of his mother. “Throughout all the changes, my mom has always been there. She’s struggling and has her own stuff, but I can’t be ungrateful because I know how crazy it is. Her life was a struggle. My mom came from a negative place. She didn’t know her dad and had trouble with her mom.”
He wisely adds, “We make our own decisions, but it matters how you come into life. People who disagree don’t understand that reality. I had to learn early to depend on myself and to be independent.”
Martell’s goals for his future are as humble as he is. He wants to complete college, get a steady job doing what he loves, live in his own apartment and eventually have a family. And, he emphasizes, “I’m going to be in my kids’ lives because that’s important.”
North Community High School, Minneapolis, MN
Nominator: Kate Anderson, social worker, North Community High School
Randy Mathews knows that society often holds a stereotypical view of teenage black males as troublemakers who drop out of school and end up in jail. He is determined to turn that stereotype on its head by surmounting the obstacles that have been placed in his way and creating a successful future.
Randy’s rough start in life gave him much to overcome. As a child, he bounced back and forth between living with his mother, who repeatedly told him he was an accident and worthless, and his father, who beat him for the slightest infractions. He was eventually sent to live with his father permanently. School became Randy’s refuge from the physical abuse he endured. He poured himself into his studies and came to value knowledge and learning. He longed for a loving family who would care for him, but felt totally alone.
In middle school, Randy devised a coping strategy of running away whenever his dad would hit him, but always showing up for school. Thanks to school administrators who provided him with food and clothing and let him shower at school in the morning, he was able to survive what was happening at home.
When Randy was 15, his parents’ parental rights were terminated and he entered the foster care system. By that time, Randy was already 6’4” tall, and he took up basketball the summer after his freshman year. He fell in love with the sport, and another lifeline was created. Now 6’7” (an attribute he calls “a gift from God”), Randy strikes an imposing presence that can’t be missed in the hallways at North Community High School in Minneapolis. But the impression he makes is more than physical, as he has taken on a leadership role in mentoring younger athletes and acting as a role model for other youth who are struggling with abuse and other interpersonal issues. He manages the school’s clothing/food shelf, The Rack, and has been instrumental in increasing the number of families served, as well as securing additional donations from the community.
Randy’s history has given him a strong independent streak, and he’s proud of being able to advocate for himself and create his own path in the world. At the same time, he acknowledges the coaches, counselors, teachers and school administrators who have helped him to beat the odds. “All of them helped educate me about things that can happen,” he says. “From making a small choice, you can ruin everything.”
Randy hopes to forge a career as a school principal, where he can have a similar impact on the lives of teenagers. According to his nominator, that role will be a natural fit. “His maturity and insight has helped him to see past conflicts that go on within a school building and straight to the systematic issues that students and families face every day,” she wrote, predicting that Randy will be “a strong, but caring leader of a building someday.”
KAO SOUA YANG
Johnson Senior High School, St. Paul, MN
Nominator: Jonathan Gershberg, College Possible Senior Coach
Kao Soua’s family has always lived in poverty. Originally from Laos, her family spent ten years in a Thai refugee camp before immigrating to the United States in 2005 in search of a better life. But illness soon fell upon both of her parents, preventing them from being able to work and bring home wages to support their six children. In order to survive, the family began to rely on subsidized health care, free and reduced school lunch, public housing, and other government assistance programs in addition to food shelves at a local church. They also relied on Kao Soua. She took on after-school jobs, cleaning, paying bills, cooking, and looking after her parents and younger siblings.
Kao Soua’s family faces many struggles, but she has never let them interfere with her education. Today, she is enrolled full time as a post-secondary student at St. Paul College. She exhausted Johnson Senior High School’s most rigorous course offerings and achieved a 3.99 GPA. She was inducted into the National Honor Society, named an Advanced Placement Scholar by the College Board, and has received other prestigious awards for her work, including from the American Psychological Association. When she isn’t studying or caring for her family, Kao Soua involves herself in activities, which have included Honor Guard, working at the local library, and playing her favorite sport, badminton.
Her family motivates her to succeed in school – and in life. “Focus on your education and get a good career to help yourself,” her father has told her. Teachers, friends, and her College Possible coach have helped and cheered her along the way, too. Kao Soua says that her motivation comes from within as well. At times emotionally and physically exhausted, Kao Soua perseveres and tells herself not to give up. “I want to live a life different from and better than that of my parents. I want to graduate college, get a good career, and earn more than enough money to support myself and my family.”
Kao Soua is on track to achieve her dreams. The engineering classes she took at Johnson Senior High School have inspired her to pursue a Bachelor’s – and one day a Master’s – degree in the field. She wants to travel, too, and plans to study abroad.
“I survived the darkest moments of my life,” says Kao Soua. Today, her future looks bright.
Harding Senior High School, St. Paul, MN
Nominator: Patrick Snyder, College Possible Senior Coach
Nasro Mohamed’s childhood was one marked by monumental pain and loss, both physical and emotional. Yet when you meet her today, she radiates a positivity and cheerfulness that belies her traumatic past. As a three-year-old in civil war-torn Ethiopia, Nasro saw her mother killed by soldiers who had invaded their home in search of her father. He was not home that night and would not be seen again. Nasro was shot in the lower leg, shattering the bone and eventually leading to amputation. Taken in by an aunt, Nasro left her native country, moving first to Kenya, and then to the United States at the age of eight.
Despite multiple surgeries and extensive and painful rehabilitation that caused her to miss a lot of school, Nasro does not readily share details of her hardships, even with close friends. She recalls that the first time one elementary school teacher learned of her disability was when her ill-fitting prosthesis fell off at school.
“I don’t want pity,” she explains. “I don’t want to be looked at as different.” Currently a senior at Harding Senior High in St. Paul, Nasro continues to downplay the physical challenges she has faced. She cites instead the struggle to learn English as the obstacle she is most proud of overcoming. That accomplishment has been essential to her family’s survival. Nasro’s aunt has been unable to obtain work due to language barriers, health issues, and lack of education. The family relies upon public programs like SNAP, Section 8 housing and cash assistance to get by. Without Nasro’s ability to translate, navigating the paperwork and processes necessary to obtain help would have been nearly impossible.
Seeing the challenges her aunt has faced inspires and motivates Nasro to work hard in school. “My aunt doesn’t have an education, and that made it hard for us. She’s the one that pushes me,” Nasro says.
Nasro’s nominator describes her as “the model student: focused on her future, an assiduous worker in the classroom, and a leader in her community.” In addition to taking many college-level International Baccalaureate classes, Nasro participates in College Possible, was selected to participate in the Genesys Works program and maintains a prestigious internship at 3M. She is also involved in school organizations like the African Club and Knight Crew, and serves her community at Dayton’s Bluff Community Center.
That level of involvement is especially impressive in light of Nasro’s heavy load of family responsibilities. Ethiopian culture places the burden of household chores on females. As the only girl in a household of male cousins, Nasro is expected to take on the cooking, cleaning, and babysitting duties. While she often feels overwhelmed, Nasro keeps her focus on her future. She has been accepted to the University of Minnesota, and she hopes to study abroad. She wants to put her years of experience navigating the world of public support programs to good use by becoming a social worker and helping other families like hers who need a helping hand.
Como Park Senior High School, St. Paul, MN
Nominator: Jamie Menne
Makayla Hout offers a philosophy of life based on her experiences coping with sexual, emotional, and physical abuse. “Each obstacle in life offers you a decision,” she says, “the decision to become a negative product of your environment or to learn and get motivation from what you have overcome.”
As she continues to learn how to adjust to her changing environment, Makayla maintains her motivation to graduate from high school and attend college. Even though she realizes attending college isn’t a guarantee for a happy and successful life, she has witnessed the struggles of those who didn’t attend college and values education as the pathway to a better life.
Makayla’s story is a dark one. For many years, she lived with her mother, sisters and brothers in Morton, Minnesota. But her mother’s drug abuse led to family instability and eventually to her mother giving up her parental rights. Feeling abandoned, Makayla craved a parental relationship. She decided to seek out her father, whom she didn’t know. She was successful in connecting with him and when she was 14, she moved to St. Paul to live with him. It wasn’t long before the physical and sexual abuse began.
Makayla describes her father as two different people – one was abusive, the other was a providing father who seemed to be the only person who cared about her. She struggled with guilt and fear. She knew she should tell someone about the abuse but she was afraid of what would happen to her after she told.
It was another fear — that of failing school — that prompted Makayla to open up. Makayla was failing nearly every class, primarily due to absenteeism. Her father, Makayla explains, would frequently keep her home or pull her out of class. She had missed nearly 400 classes since her freshman year. Even though she managed to produce decent grades on the tests and the assignments she was able to turn in, she couldn’t make up for all the missing work. In the middle of her junior year, Makayla’s counselor met with Makayla to discuss her grades and what her low GPA might mean in terms of college. Makayla was clearly upset and after a few more meetings with her counselor, finally disclosed the abuse. She was immediately removed from her home and a new phase of life began.
Since reporting the abuse, life has not been easy for Makayla but she does feel that she is in more control of her destiny. She has lived in two different foster homes since last March, but has been able to keep attending Como Park High School with a perfect attendance record. She has put in many hours to improve her grades and is now earning mostly As on her tests and assignments. She works part-time at a McDonald’s and in the summer she adds work at a recreation center. She enjoys earning and managing her own money. Her father pled guilty to the abuse charges and is currently in prison. Makayla undergoes counseling to learn how to deal with issues of distrust and fear.
For Makayla, the future looks brighter than the past. She has been accepted to the University of Minnesota-Mankato where she plans to study psychology. She hopes one day to work with kids who have experienced abuse. If she could wave a magic wand and make life better, she says she would provide a “safe place” for all children to go. Her advice to others facing adversity is “to never give up. You have to believe you have a future.”