Youth beating the odds!

The Children’s Defense Fund’s (CDF) Beat the Odds program honors outstanding high schools 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. Their grit and resilience are awe-inspiring. Their stories give hope and remind us that none of us have a right to give up on any child or youth.

Since 1993 CDF-MN has honored nearly 300 Beat the Odds scholarship recipients and finalists. This year’s award winners were chosen out of 273 applicants. This year’s five honorees will each receive a $5,000 scholarship, a computer, and an array of college supplies to help them pursue their dreams of higher education. The following are three students honored from North and Henry High Schools who beat the odds.

Israel Glenn, North Community High School 

One bright, summer morning when he was 13, Israel Glenn woke to find the sheriff in his house. Israel was worried but his mother told him to stay calm. She said he and his sisters were going to camp. But it wasn’t camp. It was the start of a series of foster care placements. It would be months before his family would be reunited. Israel tried to stay strong for his two sisters but he was terrified and heartbroken to be away from his mom.

Israel’s dad had been absent from the family for years and as a single parent, Israel’s mom struggled to provide for her family. As he grew up, Israel remembers moving a lot, usually to neighborhoods where it wasn’t safe for him and his siblings to play outside. He remembers not having new clothes for school and being teased and bullied. Several of his extended family members had turned to drugs and alcoholism. Israel wanted better for his family.

“I knew I had to step up because there wasn’t another adult to help my mom out,” he says. Once the family was reunited, Israel got a job so he could add to the family income. During his sophomore year at North Community High School, he took a job working with the janitorial staff. He endured a lot of teasing from his classmates who often would intentionally make messes for him to clean up.

Israel didn’t let it get him down. He performed his job with maturity and integrity and actually improved relations between the student body and the janitorial staff.

Israel now works about 30 hours a week but still finds time to help plan school activities, serve as class president and participate in several school groups. He hopes to enroll in college in the fall and eventually have a career in politics so he can help impoverished communities.

When he enters college, Israel will become the first member of his family to not only go to college but to graduate from high school. He says everything he has and will accomplish, is done for his mom. “I want her to be proud of me and to experience through me the things she missed doing.”

Jasmine Salter, Patrick Henry Senior High School 

March 29, 2016 unfolded as one of the worst days of Jasmine Salter’s life. It was the day she was hit by a car and suffered traumatic brain injury. Physically she would never be the same. As it turned out, though, this wasn’t the worst day of Jasmine’s young life. That came four months later, the day her father was murdered. That day altered life for her entire family, spiraling them into financial and emotional crisis. Without her father’s income, her family lost their home and became couch hoppers. Instability was the norm and affected everyone, especially Jasmine who was not only grieving but still trying to heal from her injuries.

Now a senior at Patrick Henry High School, it’s difficult to reconcile the traumas Jasmine has experienced with the “enthusiastic and open” young woman who juggles school, work, track and therapy sessions while holding onto the dream of attending college. Jasmine says the first step to pulling herself out of despair and becoming more positive was accepting the “reality” of her situation and focusing on her passions. Gardening was one of those passions.

In 2014 Jasmine leveraged her life-long love of gardening into a youth-run business with her friends called The Green Garden Bakery. It sells (on a pay- what–you-can philosophy) homegrown vegetable-based desserts to encourage healthy eating. The success of the bakery has led to media interviews and college speaking engagements. Immersing herself in business, has not only helped Jasmine recapture her confidence but also helped formulate her college plans. She wants to study food policy with the hope of improving the eating habits of young people in her Northside neighborhood.

As Jasmine has grown stronger and more confident, she has set some pretty high academic goals for herself. She strives to be a role model for other teens who have faced physical and emotional challenges. She especially wants to set an example for her younger brother, who in her words, has looked to “the streets” for his examples. Her family provides the motivation to keep “beating the odds,” says Jasmine. “I have to show my baby brother that there are other ways to make it.

Kenija Wallace, North Community High School

Kenija Wallace has lived through abuse, homelessness and an illness that left her with chronic pain. Instead of becoming discouraged, Kenija has used these experiences to fuel her desire to help others.

When she was five, a family member who suffered severe mental illness molested Kenija. She never told anyone about the abuse but another incident led to her abuser being removed from the household. Before that happened, however, Kenija’s mother had moved the family to Minnesota in search of a better life. Instead of a better life, the move left her family in crisis. Unable to find affordable housing they ended up sleeping in their car and shuffling from shelter to shelter.

When the family finally settled in more stable housing Kenija felt her life was slowly improving. That feeling didn’t last. One morning shortly after she had fallen while running to catch the bus, Kenija woke up to find she couldn’t move anything but her eyes and mouth. After rushing to the emergency room, Kenija was diagnosed with Transverse Myelitis, a condition that causes inflammation in the spinal cord and leads to weakness, numbness and pain in the back and lower limbs.  Faced with the possibility of spending the rest of her life in a wheelchair, Kenija persevered, relearning to walk, talk and take care of herself.

When she was 16, Kenija faced yet another trauma. Her abuser returned to live in the home. This triggered significant fears and nightmares that Kenija knew she had to face. In trying to resolve these issues, she finally told her mother about the abuse that had occurred years earlier. Her mother was upset and hurt but eventually, Kenija says, they developed a much stronger relationship. When a medical crisis struck her mother recently, Kenija stepped up, getting a job to help with finances and taking on the cooking and cleaning – all while maintaining her grades and participating in school activities at North Community High School.

Hoping to attend Augsburg College in the fall, Kenija plans to pursue a career in social work and then work with homeless adults, whom she sees as one of the most underserved populations in her community.