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Angela Bassett, Conan O’Brien Honor Young Students at Children’s Defense Fund Gala

Awards season may be right around the corner, but on Thursday, Hollywood took a break from the glitz and glam to celebrate five high school students who have excelled academically despite facing extreme adversity both at home and in the classroom.

The 29th annual Beat the Odds Awards ceremony at the Skirball Cultural Center featured speeches from a host of celebrities, including Angela Bassett and Alfre Woodard, who praised the work of Children’s Defense Fund president Marian Wright Edelman alongside documentary-style short films, which narrated each of the student-honorees’ lives.

Bassett was one of the first of the evening to speak and introduced Edelman with an analogy about Robin Hood. Like the hooded bandit, Bassett said Edelman isn’t afraid to stand up for the rights of the disenfranchised; however, unlike the legend, Edelman’s work is more than real.

“Marian has never had a problem demanding that we step up to support and empower children across this country, especially now during these perilous times in our nation. Marian won’t back down,” she said. “She is determined to defy the corrupt administration to continue the fight for the freedoms and the rights of children.”

Edelman, who will step down from her role as the Children’s Defense Fund president later this month, took the stage next, earning a standing ovation before sharing the inspiration behind her work. As a young girl, Edelman said she faced discrimination constantly, whether it was the racially segregated water fountain she was required to drink out of or the schools she was forced to attend, which inspired in her a desire to change the world, starting with the next generation of students.

“I thank you for the celebration tonight of these young people because nobody has a right to give up on any child. They are doing remarkable things,” she said. “And this country, if it’s not going to save its children, it’s not going to be able to save itself.

Among the students honored by Edelman was Manuel Lopez, who, after breaking his leg due to Fibrous dysplasia, has gone on to achieve a 3.75 GPA despite extreme economic hardships at home. After losing his last home due to financial issues, Lopez said he is now forced to sleep on the floor while helping out with his parents’ work during his free time.

Earlier in the evening, Conan O’Brien, a longtime supporter of the Children’s Defense Fund, said he was intimated by students like Lopez because they are already so poised at such a young age. He also praised the organization for its work in focusing on education.

“You go to a lot of events, [and] sometimes you can say ‘I think this is a good cause, a pretty good cause – I think we’re doing something good here,’ and then this organization, it’s so overwhelmingly clear that the focus is where it should be,” he told reporters.

Also presenting during the evening were Aisha Hinds, Tory Kittles, and Jussie Smollett. The students who were honored included Jazmin de Luna, Samantha Galindo, Samarea Johnson, and Ian Leui.

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