Temperatures drifted upwards Thursday from the arctic levels that have beset the Buckeye State for most of this winter, but that rise won't match the heartfelt warmth that will set hearts aglow tonight at the Children’s Defense Fund–Ohio 2014 Beat the Odds® Event honoring four students who have overcome tremendous adversity in life, demonstrated academic excellence and given back to their communities.
Marian Wright Edelman, President of the CDF, will join Ohio chapter Executive Director Renuka Mayadev to honor four Ohio high school students who each will receive a $5,000 scholarship, a laptop, and training in leadership development from the CDFO. Hosted by WBNS-10TV Anchor Jerry Revish from the Hilton Columbus Downtown, Paóla Benefo of Columbus, Carmen Griffith of Springfield, Asiae Roberts of Cincinnati and Theresa Tran of Wickliffe will take center stage, along with their stories of inspiration.
CGE had an opportunity to speak with Benefo and Roberts before tonight's event, to hear their take on the road they've traveled, the road ahead and learn some tidbits that plant them in a contemporary culture that's changing by the minute.
Paóla Benefo, 17-years old, from Columbus, located in Franklin County, attends Columbus Alternative High School. Born in Verona, Italy, Paóla is daughter of Ghanaian parents. The family came to America for educational opportunity when she was five years old. Paóla, already fluent in Italian and in her parents’ native language of Twi, also known as Akan, struggled to learn English in Head Start.
Then September 11  happened and Paóla and her family, already deeply involved in their American life, were unable to renew their legal residency. This family secret only made her work harder to excel in school. Everything changed in 11th grade when Paóla’s mother was suddenly laid off after 12 years of employment, and then her father was arrested and deported back to Ghana.
With the help of Senator Sherrod Brown’s office, Paóla was able to get her deferred action status approved to finish her rigorous International Baccalaureate Diploma in Columbus. A spokesman from Sen. Brown's office told CGE today that casework team members assist constituents on a broad range of issues. "While some request are out of jurisdiction, our office makes every attempt at helping Ohioans work with federal agencies to get their requests addressed in a timely manner.," Ben Famous said via email.
Paóla maintains a 4.2 GPA today and aspires to be valedictorian of her graduating class. Paóla is the definition of a DREAMer with the goal of pursuing an education in Dentistry or Linguistics.
Paóla told CGE in a telephone interview that even though she was born in Italy, she's not a citizen yet, although she can fulfill special requirements requiring residency if she chooses. As for her Italian, she says, "I do make bad grammar mistakes, but what American doesn't."
Asked what her generations greatest strength or weakness is, she answered the first part with love of family and travel and other cultures. As for the last half of the question, she said her peers may not be "courageous enough to tell people our strengths or our backgrounds."
Since Paóla has seen America from the outside, even though she only lived in Italy for five years, CGE asked what's that done for her, given most of her peers have limited chances to venture beyond the nation's borders. "Value what you have here," she said, reminding others that what is taken for granted here is often not available in other countries.
How has she "beat the odds?" Paóla says "taking my families' background and putting it on the headlines" was indeed a challenge. As for her future "odds" to beat, she says it's about finishing her goals, the ones that represent why her family brought her here: to get an education so she can help with family back home in Ghana.
Her goals, to be either a dentist or linguistics, may seem worlds apart but they end up in the same place, our mouths. "Glad you caught on," she said, adding that nice smiles are good first things to see; a happy look and good teeth, which add to your confidence level, help how people perceive you. She hopes to return to Ghana as a dentist, since more are needed. According to World Health Organization data, Ghana in 2008 only had 148 dentists, which is equivalent to 0.06 dentists per 10,000 people. Compare that to dentists in the United Kingdom, where there are 5.17 dentists per 10,000 people. Even Nigeria had more at 0.25 dentists per 10,000 people.
Her best advice to others is to "organize yourself ... everything that comes after is worthwhile."
Favorite book? Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teenagers
Favorite movie? Coming to America [it's funny, but she doesn't have one favorite].
Best living hero? - My dad
Best historic hero? - Steven Biko, an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s.
Is Facebook a good thing or a bad thing? "It's not bad, it's a distraction."
Asiae, from Cincinnati, located in Hamilton County, attends North College Hill High School. Born to a teenage mother, Asiae arrived with the odds stacked against him. His father seemed to be in prison more than he was out. The oldest of nine children growing up with a single mother, Asiae often was responsible for his siblings. Sometimes living in homes with no heat, no hot water and pallets on the floor for beds, Asiae’s unstable childhood was full of challenges. While still in elementary school, Asiae walked in on his mother attempting suicide. Despite transferring from school to school in state after state, he has always liked school and been a good student. Asiae never has lost hope in his future, his siblings, or his mother. He is a leader in his community and an active volunteer in his church. He particularly enjoys mentoring younger children. Asiae loves to sing, draw, and take photographs and hopes to ultimately become an architect or plastic surgeon.
Asked the same questions, Roberts said his generation's greatest strength is technology and its greatest weakness is "our values have gone down a bit." As for the odds he beat and those that lie ahead, he said "moving forward and overcoming obstacles" were past challenges and that "setting himself apart from others as a unique person" is in his future.
Roberts says his interest in a career focus on architecture or plastic surgery, both of which in their own way are about building, maybe a building or a face. He likes architecture, he says, because building a home helps others, while plastic surgery can build confidence where maybe it wasn't before.
For those who follow, Asiae tells them to "not give up."
Favorite movie? Wizard of Oz
Best living hero? My mom
Best historic hero? My grandmother
Is Facebook a good thing or a bad thing? "It can be both," he said. "It depends on how you use it."
The Children's Defense Fund-Ohio (CDF-OH) is the Ohio office of the Children’s Defense Fund whose 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.
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