Beat the Odds Program

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Beat the Odds Program2021-07-02T09:40:23-05:00

The Children’s Defense Fund-New York Beat the Odds® scholarship program provides social and academic college readiness programming to high school students that are working hard to overcome tremendous obstacles in their personal lives, who demonstrate academic achievement and give back to their community. In addition, the Beat the Odds program offers scholarship opportunities and support services to aid scholars throughout their college career—including ongoing mentoring, internship placements and career guidance.

Each Beat the Odds scholar receives a scholarship to put toward their college expenses and is honored at the annual CDF-NY Beat the Odds awards gala.

Since 1990, the Children’s Defense Fund Beat the Odds scholarship program has been awarded to almost 1,000 students nationwide. Alumni of the program have graduated from some of the nation’s premier universities and serve in a diverse range of occupations.



2021 CDF-NY Beat the Odds® Celebration

After a year of challenges and tragedies, we will celebrate the resilience of our 2021 graduates on June 28, 2021. This virtual event will be an exciting night of celebration, friends and inspiration. You can register for the event here. To help provide resources for the BTO scholars and all our policy work, please feel free to donate here.

Congratulations to the 2021 CDF-NY Beat the Odds® Scholars!

Their stories will remind you how one caring adult can help change the outcome for a child in need. Please read the stories of these eight extraordinary youths who beat the odds stacked against them and learn how you can help make their dreams come true.


Kiara Atkins
Bronx, NY  3.3 GPA 

After experiencing poverty and working to recover from the sudden loss of her mother to cancer, Kiara Atkins has committed herself to use her experiences to empower others. She has taken her pain and used it to fuel her purpose. She has volunteered at children’s centers for haunted houses and basketball games. She held a teaching assistant position at the Brooklyn Museum and tutored her peers for regents prep. Kiara is creative at heart and shines bright on her school’s stage during her leading roles in school plays. She also knows how powerful her voice is and uses it in advocacy efforts to lobby with the Children’s Defense Fund- New York. Even with all of her responsibilities, Kiara maintains a 3.3 GPA. She will attend SUNY Morrisville, where she will study architectural study and design. Kiara aspires to create opportunities for others to experience authentic joy. She will change how minority communities care for their own people and those around them by teaching them how to start and maintain homesteads and grow their food. Kiara knows that she can make her dreams into reality with grit and determination, and by wielding her talents and strength, she knows she will get there.

Elijah Dunnigan 
Manhattan, NY  3.0 GPA 

WIth a diagnosis of lead poisoning at a young age, Elijah faced many challenges, but he has consistently demonstrated his resilience and ability to succeed.. Elijah values his education and being civically engaged in his community and seizes opportunities to thrive. After joining the Beat The Odds family, his charismatic and outgoing personality put him in spaces where he could use his voice to advocate on issues that impacted his community. As a result of his ambition Elijah secured an internship with New York Senator Brian Benjamin’s office. He handled clerical tasks, participated in food drives and made sure he was on the front lines for distributing goods to his community. Elijah understands that there are many young people who will have challenges navigating difficult experiences and simultaneously trying to overcome them. He aspires to be an educator to help children navigate their lives in a positive manner. This upcoming fall he plans to attend Buffalo State University. He is eager to immerse himself in so many new things as he embarks on this new journey.


Aisha Leigh 
Bronx, NY  4.0 GPA 

Aisha comes from a traditional African household where it can be difficult to discuss mental health and share emotional distress. As a result of being subjected to bullying because of cultural differences, Aisha’s mental health was impacted. Although turning to therapists and counselors went against cultural values, her parents understood that they had to find solutions and together they sought options that would help Aisha navigate the negative actions of her peers.  Overcoming her challenges and with help from a therapist and administrators, Aisha maintained one of the highest GPAs in her school. She joined several student clubs, tutored her peers in the honors program, participated in the Children’s Defense Fund – New York lobby week and made some great friends. As she prepares for college, she intends to study psychology, so she can one day bridge the gap between mental health and the overall wellbeing of young people. She would like to continue to break cultural barriers and show families why taking mental health seriously is very significant in all children’s lives.

Ladanijirah “LJ” Lightner
Brooklyn, NY  3.5 GPA 

Growing up in poverty and moving from shelter to shelter throughout her life with her mother and siblings, Ladanijirah  knows firsthand how important advocacy is for her community. Through her Sisters Evolving Together (ASET) involvement, a Department of Education after-school youth empowerment program for high school students living in New York City, she has reached unexpected goals. During her sophomore year in high school, she organized and fundraised for a school trip to France, which served as a conduit for her passion for community efforts. Since then, she has mobilized to advocate for her community. Most recently attending the 2021 Children’s Defense Fund- New York Week of Action and meeting with her elected official to advocate for a more robust New York Health Care System. As a member of the National Honor Society and a College Now student, Ladanijirah graduated a semester early from high school and held a 3.0 GPA. She will study Veterinary Science at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Ladanijirah hopes to bridge her love for veterinary science and her community. She will bridge her passions to help empower her community and those around her.

Alicia Lindo
Queens, NY  3.0 GPA

Despite experiencing homelessness, which saw her family of 5 placed in a one-bed hotel room in Brooklyn, Alicia decided to focus on her grades rather than her circumstances. She worked extremely hard to maintain exceptional grades. Regardless of what was happening at home she truly believed that education would allow her to see the world beyond her circumstances. As a sophomore, Alicia entered a college program at Medgar Evers College for high school students with exceptional grades.. Because of her success in this program, Alicia will graduate with an associates degree in biology in addition to her high school diploma. Even while succeeding in school and working to help her family, Alicia found time to advocate with the Children’s Defense Fund – New York during Lobby Week for the last two years. Alicia aspires to study early childhood education and work to advance the needs of children in marginalized spaces. She will also be joining her sister at  St. John’s University this upcoming fall which was her top choice in universities. She is truly happy that she did not let her environment dictate her success.

Khushayah “KJ” Morris
Brooklyn, NY  3.4 GPA

After encountering the juvenile justice system, Khushayah is fighting his way out of the school-to-prison pipeline while fighting to dismantle racism through his love for advocacy work, football, and building a better world for young people in New York City. Khushayah’s commitment to serving others is evident through his work in the Children’s Defense Fund- New York, first as an intern and now as a Beat the Odds Scholar. He has mobilized to Albany to advocate for legislation for a better school and health care systems, written testimonies for city council hearings, published Op-Eds, and participated in rallies for police-free schools and better mental health services. Khushayah is a fierce advocate in his community and even stronger on the field. His love for football fuels his commitment to building community everywhere he goes. Khushayah balances all of his roles and obligations while maintaining a 3.4 GPA. He will attend SUNY Buffalo State College, where he will study psychology and continue to pursue his love for football. Through his work as a mental health professional, Khushayah will destigmatize and demystify mental health stigmas in the black, brown, and youth communities by connecting others to resources while being one himself.

Sandy Perez
Brooklyn, NY  3.3 GPA

Growing up in a mixed-status household brought challenges and anxiety for Sandy and her family; this experience has showcased how powerful communities are when they organize and fight for justice. Sandy now works to educate her community about their rights by leading trainings on what to do if undocumented immigrants encounter ICE or law enforcement. She has mobilized to Washington, DC, and Albany, NY, where she collaborated with national youth organizing organizations and learned how to continue to build powerful movements against unfair laws and systems. Her commitment to her community has resulted in numerous scholarships, including the DREAM.US National Scholarship and the Beat the Odds Ambassador Scholarship. Sandy knows education is crucial to realizing her family’s dreams when they left their lives back in her home country in search of a better future, and this fall, she will attend Brooklyn College, where she will study Computer Science. Despite all of the adversity her family and she has faced, Sandy has maintained a 3.3 GPA while also remaining committed to her family and community. She is committed to changing her community by fighting to uplift youth voices and providing more leadership and advocacy opportunities to all young people regardless of their intersectional identities.

Mahmoud Zaghloul 
Bronx, NY  4.0 GPA

A few years ago, Mahmoud embarked on a journey to America with his father to jump start their family’s life in America. Although he missed his mom and siblings who were left behind temporarily, he let that be a constant reminder to persevere until they were all reunited. Despite being subjected to bullying because of his cultural differences and inability to speak much English, Mahmoud overcame his challenges and thrived. He is an exceptional student and built great rapport with teachers and administrators.  Even while working long hours, Mahmoud secured one of the highest-grade point averages in his school and has maintained a 3.9-4.0 each year. Mahmoud has also used his voice to lobby with the Children’s Defense Fund – New York. Mahmoud has exceeded all expectations and continues to amaze everyone around him. He aspires to become a doctor and impact as many people as possible and will be attending Fordham University this upcoming fall.

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