During its 40th anniversary celebration Monday, Sept. 30, the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) honored former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a long-serving member of the CDF board of directors and a past chairperson. The Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall was alive with youth performances and captivating stories of young people who had gone from adversity to triumph as the CDF celebrated 40 years.
Mrs. Clinton joined CDF as a young staff attorney not long out of law school. Her passion for children aided the organization in developing strategies to better serve and protect children most at risk. As she was honored, Clinton continued to advocate for children.
“We want the next generation and the generation after that to have many more opportunities to realize the American dream, however they define it, to be able to live up to their own God-given potential,” said Clinton. “We want to keep making progress every year, year by year, to make it clear that every child is our child. We will not rest until every single child has the same chance to beat the odds as the ones you saw tonight.
Donnie Belcher Smith was one of many who told a story of beating the odds. Born into the cradle to prison pipeline, her alcoholic father’s absence and her mother’s addiction to crack cocaine marred her childhood. Smith recalled visiting her mother in prison at the age of 4, speaking with her through a glass and crying as she had to leave.
Without a constant parenting figure, Smith began taking care of herself at age 12. Pretending to be 14, she landed a job at McDonald’s. That same year, her mother’s boyfriend raped her. Despite the odds, Smith persevered with the help of her grandmother, who enrolled her in a program called “Freedom School” in Kansas City.
CDF Freedom School is a national youth program that focuses on reading, literacy, service and civic engagement, and educational enrichment after school and during the summer. In 2013, the program served 11,500 children in 96 cities and 29 states and the District of Columbia.
“For the first time, I met people who looked like me who were going to college,” Smith said of the program. “I quickly learned through my teachers that a good education is one way to exit the pipeline.”
While reading the book ‘Warriors Don’t Cry,’ Smith decided that she would no longer cry or suffer in silence as she struggled in her own war for personal dignity and control. “Words were my weapon of choice,” she told the audience.
“You must know who is the object of a sentence and who is the subject of a sentence in order to know if you are the object or subject of history,” she recalled learning. “If you can’t control a sentence, you don’t know how to put yourself into history; to trace your own origin in the country; to vocalize and use voice.”
Smith went on to mentor other young rape victims. She subsequently received a scholarship that started her career in teaching. “At that moment, explained Smith, I realized that God had chosen me to be a warrior for all those whose voices were stolen, whose trauma caused a traffic jam on the road to success.”
She graduated college and is now a teacher at Michelle Obama’s alma mater in Chicago. Smith and her husband have also launched ‘Donda’s House, Inc.,’ a nonprofit named after the mother of her husband’s childhood friend Kanye West. Together, they provide high-quality arts instruction to transform the lives of youth.
Founded by Marian Wright Edelman in 1973, the CDF has reached more than 125,000 children and young adults. More than 800 low-income high school students have attended college because of CDF programs.
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