During awards season, actors, screenwriters, directors and others working in film are feted at near-constant festivals and awards shows. On Dec. 5, however, it was all about the kids.
The Children’s Defense Fund-California hosted their 23rd Beat the Odds Awards at the Beverly Hills Hotel, awarding $10,000 college scholarships to five high school students who have overcome adversity in their personal lives to become successful in school and extra-curriculars. Jennifer Garner, Conan O’Brien, Reese Witherspoon, J.J. Abrams and more joined in to honor the scholars.
“What I really love about this organization and this particular event is that it is truly all about the kids,” Witherspoon said before introducing one of the honorees. “For example, many of you will notice if you look at the back of your chair, there is no gift bag hanging there, nor will you find one waiting for you at the valet.”
Witherspoon smiled as she then described that, instead, they’ve focused their efforts on creating expansive gift bags for the five scholarship winners – a decision that, judging by their applause, the audience approved of.
The children’s stories were told via short movies by a variety of directors, showing heartbreaking circumstances, including poverty, abusive parents and addiction. Kevin Huvane and Abrams took the stage to solicit donations, and acknowledged how easy it is to forget about those suffering.
“Kevin and I are here as co-chairs of the event, but even more as fathers who want a bright future for all children,” Abrams said.
“Living here in L.A., it’s really too easy to get comfortable,” Huvane continued. “It’s too easy to assume that because we’re able to invest in the future of our children through quality education, good doctors, safe spaces and healthy food, that those inhibited by poverty are capable of doing so, too.”
Garner spoke about scholar Marilyn Bravo, whose alcoholic and drug-addicted father forced her family to move from place to place, with her mother, who spoke little English, barely being able to pay for food and rent.
“So many young people give up when they see that the deck of life is stacked against them,” said Garner. “But Marilyn Bravo is not one of them, for she is committed to living up to her incredible potential.”
It later revealed that Bravo holds a 4.11 GPA and hopes to earn a degree in bio-engineering.
O’Brien introduced Jerry Gonzalez, whose father left the family, while his mother’s boyfriend turned abusive until he was eventually arrested and deported. Burdened by anger and anxiety, Gonzalez turned to alcohol and hard drugs before he was old enough to drive.
“Tragically, Jerry’s story is far too common,” O’Brien said. “But what’s uncommon, and it’s really astounding, is how he triumphed over his past and beat the odds to accomplish great things.”
The courts intervened and placed Gonzalez in a rehabilitation program, where he stopped using drugs and turned his life around. He now holds a 3.91 GPA and serves as a mentor at the same rehabilitation center he attended.
The night also included an impassioned speech from Children’s Fund President Marian Wright Edelman. Edelman, the first African American woman to be admitted to the Mississippi bar, was introduced by CDF board member Jurnee Smollett-Bell.
“For those of us who have the privilege of serving on her board, our favorite thing about Marian is that for over 40 years, she has made the nation’s leaders very, very uncomfortable,” Smollett-Bell said, drawing laughs. “She has been relentless in reminding our elected officials that there is no excuse for a hungry child in this country.”
Edelman brought that point home, and earned a standing ovation.
“Look at the waste, look at the gifts that we’re throwing away,” Edelman said as she spoke about poor children. “We’ve got to turn this around. As I constantly say, we have no money problem. We the largest economy in the world, and how is it that we can let 16 million go poor? We’ve got to change it.”
Jeff Garlin and Columbus Short also presented awards. The other students who were honored were Stephanie Fabian, Alezaihvia Melendez and Alexis Metcalfe.