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MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: I Want to Make a Difference

Marian Wright Edelman | 10/2/2013, 3 p.m.
We must never ever give up on any child and that the most important responsibility every generation and nation has ...
Marian Wright Edelman (Courtesy of childrensdefense.org)

Doctors told Jaime Gonzalez’s parents that his birth defects were so severe he probably wouldn’t live to age one. When he did, doctors told them next that he’d probably never walk. He did that too—though it is still difficult even after a series of surgeries. “[My parents] both pushed me,” Jaime said. “When I was little and didn’t want to try, my mother said, ‘Don’t say you can’t. You can.’ That became my attitude, and even when it was hard—I’m in pain even now—it’s never been an option for me to quit.”

Jaime — now Dr. Gonzalez — is part of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF)’s network of young servant leaders who are devoting their lives to serving the next generation of children. Winning a CDF Beat the Odds® scholarship in high school for demonstrating academic excellence despite great obstacles helped Jaime with living expenses in college, and getting involved with CDF’s efforts to enroll children in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) shaped his medical goals. He added a year to his education to get a master’s degree in public health along with his medical degree. He lost a year when his mother was shot while taking out the trash, and he saw her through two surgeries. After completing his residency Jaime is planning to return home to serve the Spanish-speaking underserved and uninsured population. “That’s where there is a need,” he explained, and unlike 90 percent of his medical school classmates, he speaks Spanish.

Growing up in Minnesota Katie DeSantis overcame a different set of terrible odds. At the age of three she witnessed her drunken father beat her mother. When her battered mom crawled into bed with her on another occasion, Katie consoled her by saying everything would be okay. But it wasn’t. Her mother escaped the abuse and moved Katie and her younger sister to Minneapolis, but then there were new problems.

The family was homeless seven times in Katie’s childhood. “My mom couldn’t hold down a steady job or a place for us to stay. We would live somewhere for six months to a year and get evicted and end up in a shelter.”

School became Katie’s refuge and the place where she excelled. When she too won a Children’s Defense Fund Beat the Odds® scholarship award in 2006, it was a turning point: “Beat the Odds really helped me to be able to tell my story and not be ashamed of the life I had lived.” Katie went on to graduate from Gustavus Adolphus College in southern Minnesota. She now works for Head Start in Minneapolis as the coordinator of its Project Secure for homeless children: “I was one of those kids and that’s where my heart is. They didn’t do anything wrong. I want to make sure they know that.”

La’Mont Geddis’s path to servant leadership started with a call to CDF’s headquarters from a pay phone after he heard a professor talk about the Freedom Schools® program during a lecture: “I’m a student at Howard University and I want to get involved in Freedom Schools. I want to make a difference.” That was 18 years ago, and La’Mont has since proved to be a truly valuable asset in the public schools of Washington, D.C. La’Mont always wanted to be a teacher and studied education at Howard, but believes much of what he knows about how to reach children comes from the training and experience he received as a servant leader intern, or teacher, in the Freedom Schools program, whose model curriculum provides summer and after-school enrichment that helps children fall in love with reading, increases their self-esteem, and generates more positive attitudes toward learning.