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Beating the Odds

Six area youngsters are honored for overcoming adversity.

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Every situation is what you make of it," says John Bannister. After losing all of his immediate family members in less than eight months, the 18-year-old speaks from experience.

John's family lived in Tucumcari, New Mexico, where his father was the district attorney. Five years ago, the stress of work became too much, and John's father took his own life, leaving John, his mother, and two older siblings. Eight months later, John's remaining family members were killed in a car accident, leaving him an orphan.

In addition to losing loved ones, John has had to adjust to moving from his New Mexico home to Collierville, where he lives with an aunt and uncle. The Collierville High School senior has maintained a 3.1 GPA and was junior class president and a four-year member of the football team.

After graduation, John will attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on a Marine ROTC scholarship. He plans on becoming an attorney. "I'm a regular guy," he says. "I'm not a big fan of pity. I'm looking forward to college, where not everybody knows who you are or what your story is."

John is just one of six area youngsters chosen as the Children Defense Fund's ninth annual Beat the Odds Memphis (BTOM) winners. Chosen by BTOM and a community selection committee, the winners are picked for their success in the face of adversity. They will be honored with a banquet and an awards ceremony at Lindenwood Christian Church on May 9th.

"These kids have faced obstacles that in a normal situation might be overwhelming, but for some reason these kids have a resolve that hasn't taken them to the bottom," says BTOM board chair Theresa Okwumabua. "They have overcome great odds."

Toshika House also knows how to make the most of a bad situation. Seven years ago, at age 10, Toshika's mother died of cancer, leaving her the oldest of five brothers and sisters. After first moving from Chicago to Milwaukee, the children landed in Memphis, living with one of Toshika's great aunts.

The various transitions were too much for Toshika, who became withdrawn. "I was angry about my mom's death," she says. "The moves and everything were hard because I didn't understand."

Through the love and support of her great aunts and teachers, Toshika has blossomed into a well-adjusted, 17-year-old Carver High School junior. After being teased for being a slow learner, Toshika has advice for other youth: "Never give up. Always believe in yourself and do your best."

Not only has Josh Lee had to overcome the death of his mother a year and a half ago, he has also had the responsibility of being mother and father to his seven younger siblings and two nephews.

At 20, Josh has given up his classes at Christian Brothers University. He has no time for a girlfriend and considers raising his siblings "a privilege." "The option [to become their guardian] was always mine," he says. "I never feel cheated out of my own life. They are my whole world; whatever I need, they are there."

As a sophomore at Christian Brothers High School, Wilson Phillips has been on the honor roll every six-week period and has a 3.62 GPA. He has not missed a day of school since first grade. While these are achievements in themselves, Wilson has accomplished all of this while battling cerebral palsy.

Wilson has been through walkers, crutches, and casts battling his illness, but now his determination has enabled him to walk independently. "I'm very pleased with where I'm at right now," he says. "My parents, grandparents, and extended family have always encouraged me and have been brutally honest with me as well." Wilson hopes to one day become a journalist. "It is my firm belief that God has allowed me to live this life to influence others but also to allow me to experience the opportunities that a normal child could receive."

Torsia Arnold's childhood scars run deep. She and her three sisters were born to a drug-abusing mother. When she was 7, her mother was incarcerated, and the girls were sent to live with their grandmother.

Torsia has gone on to excel at Melrose High School with a 4.0 GPA. She is a member of the National Honor Society, Future Homemakers of America, and Bridge Builders. She plans to attend Tennessee State University and major in speech communications. As tears roll down her face, Torsia says her future includes marriage and a career helping students but no children of her own. Her past has closed her heart to this.

Tiffany Sumlin, 12, is the youngest of the BTOM honorees, but with her bright smile and optimism, she seems to have wisdom beyond her years. Sumlin and her mother left Louisiana last year for a new life in Memphis. Though they initially lived in a shelter, Tiffany was undaunted. She was selected to the cheerleading squad at Airways Middle School, participates in the drama club, and is trying to improve her grades, which suffered during the search for permanent housing.

"I like the way I am. I wouldn't change anything," says Tiffany. "God put me into this situation for a reason. Some way, somehow, I know that I will make it."

In addition to the six youths, Dr. Rene Friemoth Lee, director of the Bodine School, will also be honored for her work with youngsters. Lee says her greatest accomplishment has been to make the Bodine School a "nurturing environment for kids who have been beaten down, called names, and suffered all types of humiliation."

Tickets to the BTOM awards program are $25. Call 272-2469 for more information.

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