Beat The Odds® Celebration

Hosted by:Children's Defense Fund
Newseum map 555 Pennsylvania Avenue Washington, DC 20001

Event Details

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Honoring Five Extraordinary Young People 

2017 Beat the Odds® Celebration

Tuesday, November 7, 2017  

Newseum 555 Pennsylvania Ave., NW 
Washington, DC 20001 

Reception - Doors Open: 6:30 p.m.
Program: 8:00 p.m.  | Dessert Reception: 9:30 p.m.

Business Attire

Valet Parking Available



Elsa Sarahy Serrano Arita
Herndon High School – Herndon, Virginia    GPA:  3.3

Born into poverty to a single mother, Elsa learned at a young age both the value of education and the meaning of hard work.  Inspired by her mother finishing Grade 6 at the age of 32, Elsa studied hard because she was uncertain if her family’s poverty would result in her having to work— forcing her to forego her dreams of getting an education. In 2014, Elsa’s fear became a reality when she was told by her mother that she would have to quit school in order to help provide for her family. Instead, Elsa moved to live with her brother and his family. Even after moving, Elsa’s dreams of getting an education were thwarted by her brother’s demands that she help support the family instead of attending school.  Determined to obtain an education, Elsa studies and works six days a week while maintaining over a 3.0 GPA.  Elsa aspires to become a lawyer. 


Jonathan Benitez
Washington Latin Public Charter School – Washington, D.C. GPA: 3.5

Jonathan’s parents were born in El Salvador and moved to the United States prior to Jonathan being born. At the age of 11, Jonathan started working as a custodian with his mother after school to help support his family.  After his grades started to decline, Jonathan developed his own way of improving his grades by memorizing new words and definitions while mopping floors. Jonathan was determined to excel in school. He began taking honors and Advanced Placement classes in addition to working in the evenings after school, yet he still managed to maintain a reasonable GPA. Jonathan dreams of becoming a mechanical engineer.


Christian Ndaye
Ursinus College – Collegeville, Pennsylvania

Christian was only a child when his mother was murdered during the Democratic Republic of the Congo civil war. As a war orphan, Christian was moved at the age of 12 to Kenya before he was granted refugee status and entered the United States in 2014.  Christian excelled academically and became an outstanding student and athlete. Christian’s stellar academic performance enabled him to graduate high school a year ahead of his peers. Christian is also a gifted poet, using his writing to help him cope with the pain of losing his mother. Christian is currently a freshman at Ursinus College majoring in computer science and minoring in mathematics. He aspires to become a software engineer.


Tallya Rhodes
H.D. Woodson Senior High School – Washington, D.C.   GPA: 4.1

In her brief lifetime, Tallya moved several times between Washington, D.C., where she was born, and North Carolina. When Tallya was five, her mother escaped an abusive relationship and moved Tallya and her two siblings to safety in North Carolina. Years later, Tallya’s mother was involved in another domestically violent relationship and abruptly moved the family back to Washington, D.C. leaving everything they owned behind. Tallya’s mother was unable to find work after the sudden move which later resulted in them living in a homeless shelter for several months. Tallya decided to dedicate herself to school even while living in the shelter. She enrolled in Honors and AP classes, learned innovative ways to study, completed her assignments, and maintained a GPA over 4.0. Tallya is actively involved in her school community advocating for other young people as a student representative on the D.C. State Board of Education. Tallya aspires to become an entrepreneur. 


Khalis Williams
Morgan State University – Baltimore, Maryland

After being abandoned by her biological parents, Khalis and her five younger siblings lived with their grandmother and uncle. After experiencing extreme neglect and abuse, Khalis was placed separately into foster care. With the support of her foster family, school counselors, and school administrators, Khalis’s academic talents began to emerge along with her strong desire to attend college in order to build a brighter future for herself.  Khalis’s hard work and academic excellence enabled her to graduate high school in three years – a year ahead of her peers.  She is now attending Morgan State University majoring in biology and minoring in business.  Khalis aspires to become a pediatric surgeon.


Ticket and Sponsorship Info

Individual Ticket $350.00

  • Single ticket to the Beat the Odds event

Friend of CDF $1,000.00

  • Acknowledgement in event program
  • 2 Event Tickets

Child Ally $2,500.00

  • Acknowledgement in event program
  • 4 Event Tickets

Child Protector $5,000.00

  • Acknowledgement in event program
  • 4 Premium Seats

Child Advocate $10,000.00

  • Name on Beat the Odds communications and acknowledgement at Newseum
  • Quarter-page advertisement in the program
  • 6 Premium Seats

Child Defender $25,000.00

  • Premium listing on Beat the Odds communications and logo recognition at Newseum
  • Half-page advertisement in the printed program
  • 8 Premium Seats

Champion for Children $50,000.00

  • Recognition as an underwriter for the Beat the Odds Celebration
  • Prominent placement of name and logo on Beat the Odds communications and at Newseum
  • Full-page advertisement in the printed program
  • 10 Priority Seats

Beacon of Hope $100,000.00

  • Recognition as an underwriter for the Beat the Odds Celebration 
  • Prominent placement of name and logo on Beat the Odds communications and at Newseum
  • Recognition in event press releases
  • Full-page inside front cover advertisement in the printed program
  • 12 Priority Seats


Sheehan Whelan's mother tried to sell her for drugs when she was an infant. Fortunately for Sheehan, the buyer was an undercover agent. She spent the next eight years in the custody of an negligent grandmother who did not care for her properly. “She pawned me off to anyone else that would take me for a night.”

Sheehan rarely saw her mother as a young child. “She had just come out of being incarcerated. I remember that. She struggled with Bipolar Disorder which she medicated with drugs and alcohol.” At age 16, she talked to her biological mother for the last time on the phone. “Her mind was just sort of gone.” She died of a drug overdose when Sheehan was a sophomore in college. “I feel bad that I never got a chance to extend her grace or forgiveness; to show her who I’ve become and for her to be proud of me.” She does not have a relationship with her biological father.

When Sheehan was in the third grade and living in Texas, her aunt rescued her and raised her as if she were her own child. “She taught me that education was the only means to break the cyclical life of poverty and abuse our family lead. Anything I was interested in, she made sure I experienced. She would stretch her pockets to ensure I became a well-rounded person.”

She considers her aunt, whom she calls her mother, “absolutely the most sacrificial person I know, the salt of the earth, hardworking and tender-hearted.”

They moved to a suburb of Houston, Texas when Sheehan’s aunt got a job as principal of the local junior high school. “She was this force to be reckoned with and a pillar of the community and I had to rise to the challenge, have my character on point.” She didn’t think her “testimony was strong enough” to be awarded a Beat the Odds Scholarship. But she applied through the prompting of her aunt and teachers. “They said, ‘You have this resilient life and spirit. Give it a chance.’”

Receiving the BTO Texas Award enabled her to go to Texas A&M for her Bachelor’s degree in International Studies, and an MPA in Public Management. Since school Sheehan has worked for the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights, as an Advisor in Change Communications in the private sector, and is now beginning a career as a Human Capital Consultant for a woman-owned small business in the DC area.

Sheehan’s story also took a turn for the best: her aunt remarried in 2011, and she and her husband officially adopted Sheehan as their own child at the age of 24. “My dad — it feels surreal to call him that — told me he wanted me to be just as much his daughter as his children from a previous marriage. It’s through my ‘new’ parents that I fully know unconditional love, and how you can’t really understand it without heartache and tribulation. We’re called to love others, and without suffering there is no compassion. I find myself trying to live out that love daily.”

Confirmed Beat the Odds Celebration Presenters

Lauren W. Bright is Deputy General Counsel with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Director of the Foundation’s Washington, DC office. For over 12 years, Lauren has provided advice on a broad range of legal and strategic issues impacting the foundation and serves as lead counsel for its U.S. Program, Global Policy & Advocacy, and Communications teams. As Director of the Washington, DC office, Lauren oversees general operations and provides key input and guidance regarding policies and procedures impacting over 100 regionally-based staff.
Prior to joining the Foundation in 2005, Lauren worked with a variety of clients at the law firm Shaw Pittman LLP (now known as Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman), where she counseled and advocated for trade associations, professional societies, public charities, and other nonprofit organizations.
She is the author of several articles on association practice and management, and co-authored narratives on the impact of Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the United States.
Lauren received her undergraduate degree from Gettysburg College and her law degree from Villanova University School of Law.

Johanna Shin is a 2008 Beat the Odds® alumna from Washington D.C. She currently works in the crisis management program at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), bringing justice to people in need. She began her career in the Intelligence Community as a linguist and worked in Human Language Technology. Outside of her regular job, Johanna serves as the Grants Director at Freeset, an anti-human trafficking organization delivering remedial services to victims in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. Before entering the Government, Johanna worked in the music industry in Korea. She has performed internationally and domestically on stages such as the Kennedy Center. Johanna received her degree in Government and International Relations from George Mason University.

Lanre Falusi (pronounced “LAWN-ray Fa-LOO-see”) is a pediatrician and the Associate Medical Director of Municipal and Regional Affairs at the Child Health Advocacy Institute of Children’s National Health System in Washington, DC. In this role, Dr. Falusi’s priorities include caring for a largely immigrant patient population; coordinating advocacy education for trainees and faculty; collaborating with lawmakers and community agencies regarding child health; and participating in a trauma and resilience initiative within the primary care clinics. Dr. Falusi is also the Assistant Program Director for the Community Health Track of Children’s National’s Pediatric Residency Program, training residents to become leaders in policy, advocacy, and community healthcare delivery. She is the Past President of the DC Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and regularly provides testimony, media, and presentations on topics including child poverty, immigrant health, and social determinants of health.

David Wilson, Ed.D. the 12th president of Morgan State University, has a long record of accomplishment and more than 30 years of experience in higher education administration. Dr. Wilson holds four academic degrees: a B.S. in political science and an M.S. in education from Tuskegee University; an Ed.M. in educational planning and administration from Harvard University and an Ed.D. in administration, planning and social policy, also from Harvard. He came to Morgan from the University of Wisconsin, where he was chancellor of both University of Wisconsin Colleges and the University of Wisconsin–Extension. Before that, he held numerous other administrative posts in academia, including: vice president for University Outreach and associate provost at Auburn University, and associate provost of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.
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Special Performance

Washington Performing Arts Children of the Gospel (COTG) Choir – Formed in 1993 to celebrate the heritage of gospel music, is one of Washington Performing Arts resident artist ensembles. The Choir has become a destination choir for local students who look to develop excellence in artistry and technique as a performance ensemble. Chosen through a competitive audition process, choir members from DC, Maryland, and Virginia commit to participating in a year of choral training, team-building, and performances on both Washington Performing Arts main stage and community events. The COTG choir program (which includes an annual summer intensive vocal camp) provides opportunities through rehearsals, workshops, master classes, and specialized instruction for 50 youth in grades four through 12 and promotes an environment of self-confidence, leadership, teamwork, and respect. The Choir has shared the stage with an array of local and national gospel greats and other renowned artists including Sara Bareilles, Kathleen Battle, Sweet Honey in the Rock, and many others. Under the leadership of artistic director Stanley J. Thurston and director Michele Fowlin, the Choir has performed at The White House; the Inaugural prayer services for President Barack Obama, the National Memorial Service for Nelson Mandela, on WUSA 9- Great Day Washington and NBC Today Show. Additional performance opportunities include featured performances at the Washington National Cathedral, The Lincoln Memorial, the Historic Lincoln Theatre and The Howard Theatre, the US Department of State, the Kennedy Center, and other prestigious venues.

2017 Beat the Odds In-Kind Services Partners

Kevin Scott, Owner

Victoria Manages, Owner

Angel Naima Parks

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