(NNPA)—When Britany Lewis was born, no trumpets and glad tidings or even balloons and baby showers greeted her arrival. She was just another poor baby. Britany never knew her father, and for the first six years of her life lived in virtual squalor with five siblings and a mother addicted to drugs who eventually went to prison. Britany barely remembers her, though there are some details of her early childhood that do stand out–like the maggots everywhere in their run-down house, even in the refrigerator.
When Britany was six, her then 19-year-old sister was awarded custody of her young siblings. But her sister was hardly prepared to be a parent or provider for her younger sisters and brothers, and the family was forced to live for over a year in a two-door Honda Prelude. The deplorable living conditions and lack of parental guidance caused Britany to miss an entire year of school. No one cared enough to notice or do anything about it. Her sister also began a destructive pattern of physical abuse toward Britany that would last for several years. Once, she dealt a devastating blow that forced Britany to miss two days of school while she nursed a black eye. Britany remembers that the physical pain paled in comparison to the disappointment of tarnishing the perfect attendance record she’d built up and determinedly maintained for several years in a row in the midst of the chaos at home. By then, school had become a refuge.
While millions of children have found safe harbor with relatives, Britany did not until she was 16. Her sister kicked her out and left her then in the care of her grandparents. In this current home Britany has finally found the love, support, and guidance she needs and deserves. Despite the abandonment, homelessness, and physical abuse that permeated her childhood, Britany managed to stand tall against the odds that constantly threatened to destroy her dreams. Now a high school senior, she has a 3.94 GPA and is, according to her guidance counselor, “a proven force” on her high school campus. Britany serves as Associated Student Body President and is a vigilant community leader in programs such as the Youth Commission-City of Lancaster, California, and the Teen Builders Community Service Club. Selected as a “Future Leader” by the Valley Press Newspaper, Brittany believes “I overcame the things from my past because I refuse to let them hold me back. My plan is to continue to do my best in school and help others along the way.”
Britany is now also one of the newest winners of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Beat the Odds® awards program, which recognizes outstanding high school students who have overcome incredible adversity to excel in school and display incredible self-determination and a drive toward achievement through the common thread of hard work, academic excellence and service to their communities. On Dec. 1, celebrities and child advocates joined CDF’s California office at an awards gala honoring Britany and four other extraordinary high school students from the Los Angeles area. Each of them will receive a $10,000 college scholarship and support services including rigorous SAT prep, one-on-one college counseling, state-wide college tours, internship opportunities, educational and life-skills workshops, and guidance and mentoring throughout the high school and college years.
I am so proud of Britany Lewis and the other youths recognized in Beat the Odds awards programs in eight cities this year. But how many more of America’s 16.4 million poor children will never beat the odds stacked against them and grow up to reach their full potential the way she has? How many millions of Britanys have we already lost? How many poor babies were born today who will never win any awards and whose names we’ll never know–but who will instead grow up hungry, homeless, poorly educated and unloved on the outskirts of the American dream?
In the afterglow of Christmas when Christians celebrate the birth of the most famous poor baby in history—the miracle of the incarnation and the belief that God actually came to live among us as a poor, homeless child—I hope we can honor this holy baby in our lives today by raising a mighty voice for justice and protection for all the poor babies and children made in God’s image still left behind in poverty and hopelessness.
(Marian Wright Edelman is the president of the Children’s Defense Fund.)