- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Dressed in her Sunday best — a red wool suit, a red-and-black feathered wide-brimmed hat and red leather shoes — Ruby Williams, 73, was the oldest person to command center stage during Alexandria’s “Beat the Odds” banquet when she hopped and hollered for joy.

For a few “hallelujah” moments, guests at the Hilton Alexandria Mark Center thought they were attending a Sunday evening revival meeting rather than a scholarship awards banquet.

“I guess y’all can see that I’m not Vanessa, and I had to say to myself, ‘Now, Ruby, remember you’re not in church,’” Mrs. Williams said, poking fun at herself. But you couldn’t tell that she wasn’t a winner by the way she showered thanks and praises on everyone for helping her granddaughter attend college.

“They got mad at Mrs. [Hillary Rodham] Clinton for saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ but you can’t raise no child by yourself,” she said.

“This thing costs a lot of money, and I ain’t got none; but I feel real proud He put some good people in our lives,” Mrs. Williams continued before doing a little evangelical jig.

At one point, she even threatened to kiss the feet of the event’s master of ceremonies, John Porter, the popular former T.C. Williams High School principal who helped Vanessa and the others graduate.

The banquet honored nine recipients of the third annual Beat the Odds scholarships for students “who have succeeded personally and are moving forward despite hardships.”

Vanessa Williams, 19, a Virginia Commonwealth University sophomore studying to become a social worker, received the $2,000 Move Forward Award this year and the $3,000 Phoenix Award last year.

Ruby Williams started raising her granddaughter when she was 3 days old. “Yes, Lord, I’ve been the momma, the daddy and the grandmother, hallelujah,” Mrs. Williams said. They had “transportation problems,” and Vanessa couldn’t travel from Richmond to accept the award in person.

Jean Kelleher Niebauer is director of the Alexandria Office of Human Rights and the immediate past president of the Alexandria Bar Association, which created a citywide coalition of groups to raise more than $20,000 each year. The hotel also graciously donates the space, meals and parking.

“It’s important to show that we’re supportive of them being back on the track and headed for success in the future,” she said. Modeled after the Children’s Defense Fund initiative, anyone 13 to 21 who is a current or former client of the local court, mental health or social services agencies, or who is succeeding “despite personal hardships, roadblocks and serious life challenges” is eligible.

Annette Lee, a middle school guidance counselor, nominated Aquila Williams, a University of Maryland Eastern Shore student who received the premier $5,000 Beat the Odds Award. The teary-eyed Aquila pulled her life together and graduated from T.C. Williams with a 3.9 grade-point average despite having numerous caretakers as a child.

Ms. Lee was seated next to Fran Beech-Martin, a guidance counselor who has worked at T.C. Williams for about a decade. The pair were proud mother hens, presenting scholarships to four students they had nominated or advised.

One of those students was Jasmine Offutt, my goddaughter, now a freshman studying psychology at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C.

Ms. Beech-Martin spoke about Jasmine’s remarkable resilience after the sudden death of her 18-month-old daughter, Leala. After encouraging Jasmine to go on a college tour, the counselor said, her heartbroken student appeared more hopeful, and that was when she vowed to do whatever she could to get her into college. Jasmine’s people, like Mrs. Williams, are most grateful.

“If I can keep them with a shred of hope and let them know that there are people out there who care and want to help them … that’s all the thanks I need,” Ms. Beech-Martin said. She also nominated Ibrahim Kargbo for the $4,000 Horizon Award. The 19-year-old is attending George Mason University and plans to become a doctor, although he has been hospitalized several times for sickle cell anemia.

Jasmine, who maintained a high grade-point average while continuing to work part time after her tragic loss, received a Keep on Track award of $1,000. Tracy Hernandez, Victor McKoy, Silvia Naverrete and Lorena Granados also won similar awards.

A teen mother like Jasmine, Tracy was able to graduate and attend Northern Virginia Community College despite caring for a daughter with cancer and having gallbladder surgery. She, too, wants to be a social worker “to help teen moms like me.”

Tracy overcame serious truancy and drinking problems and was chosen to attend a leadership conference in Tennessee operated by the Children’s Defense Fund. Victor, an impressive 15-year-old who is being raised by an aunt and uncle, attends Randolph-Macon Academy and hopes to become an aeronautical engineer. His supporters have taught him “to put whatever tragedy happened to me in the past, and they keep me safe and looking forward to the future.”

Lorena said, “I can tell [you about] the negative things, but that doesn’t gain anything; I can look back now and say, ‘Wow, I’ve changed.’” Now, she is “in the game of life,” a game she once “wanted to get out of.” Then she listed the numerous community organizations in which she participated and leads.

Markevia Bell, 20, who has been in foster care since 1998, attends Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., where she has started a mentoring group for at-risk teen girls. Receiving the $3,000 Phoenix Award, she plans on becoming a high school principal “and follow in the steps of the great John Porter.”

All most children need is one person to encourage them to realize their dreams, and if an entire community gets behind them, they often achieve some mighty hopping, hollering transformations.

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