Students who have overcome adversity honored by local lawyers

Andrea Daniel has slept under stairwells and lived on shoplifted food. She has overcome a drug addiction, years of self-harm, sexual abuse, suicidal thoughts and incarceration.

“I have done so much, seen so much,” she said.

She is 17.

Daniel will receive a scholarship next month, an award from the Prince William County Bar Foundation for students who have come in contact with the juvenile justice system and have since committed themselves to pursuing education or work training.

The accomplishments of Daniel and her fellow winners make the typical high school scholarship recipient’s résumé look trivial. The winners of this award, called the Beat the Odds scholarship, have more to worry about than SATs and GPAs. They have probation officers, foster parents, drug and alcohol treatment.

They also have lofty aspirations.

Daniel plans to study dance at Northern Virginia Community College and eventually open a dance studio. She hopes to teach children with special needs how to use dance as a coping mechanism, a lesson she learned when she was in the county’s Juvenile Detention Center.

“I found that my passion was dancing, and that was the one thing that got me through,” she said. “When they’d check on us at night, I’d lay down and pretend to sleep, and then I’d get up so I could dance around the room. I’d never been in a studio, but I’d known how to dance. Dance has never left my side. It feels good to get the frustration out. It’s a better way than harming yourself.”

Kaylia Smith, 18, plans to use the money to attend Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black college in Daytona Beach, Fla. She wants to study mass communications, with the goal of being on the radio someday. “I like talking to people,” says Smith, who volunteered to be interviewed for just that reason.

At a meeting for the scholarship recipients in the juvenile and domestic relations wing of the county courthouse, Smith said that she had set foot in those courtrooms many times before as she was transferred from one foster home to another. She said that she and her sisters were taken from their mother when she was 2; she did not see her sisters again until she was in middle school.

In ninth grade, Smith switched schools three times and left school altogether for a spell while she moved from house to house. Despite all the disruptions, she said she caught up on her schoolwork and will graduate this spring from Freedom High School.

To apply for the scholarship, she wrote an essay that compared her life to art. “Real life is like a canvas, and every moment of memory and success and obstacles that you face creates your painting, and eventually the masterpiece of your life,” she said.

The Prince William Bar Foundation pairs winners of the Beat the Odds scholarship and its Phoenix Award — a laptop for younger high school students who have overcome similar challenges — with a local lawyer who acts as a mentor. As long as the winners avoid criminal activity and keep up with any counseling or treatment, they will continue to earn annual scholarship money while they are in school or training programs. Some have even continued to graduate school, assisted by money from the Beat the Odds program, foundation President-elect Lori Battistoni said.

Kathleen Farrell, who chairs the mentoring facet of the program, addressed the 11 seniors and seven younger winners at the planning meeting before the banquet where they will be honored next month.

“It’s lucky that you came in contact with this juvenile justice system,” she told them. “Because this is the system that recognizes people that came in contact with the juvenile justice system, have adversity and managed to turn it around. And this community supports and celebrates you.”

Julie Zauzmer is a local news reporter.
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