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Born to Win

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Every day, points out Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Washington advocacy group the Children’s Defense Fund, six U.S. children and youths under 20 commit suicide, 15 are killed by firearms, and more than 8,000 are reported abused or neglected. In light of those numbers, on June 1, Eddman is leading a Stand for Children march on Washington. More than 100,000 people are expected to descend on the capital for a day of song and speeches—not by politicians but by children and parents. “We have to recognize that the richest and most powerful nation in the world can solve its children’s problems,” says Edelman. “It’s not fair to stack the odds against children with violence and poverty and inadequate education.”

Sometimes, though, kids beat the odds—hence the name of an annual scholarship award Edelman started six years ago for students who have overcome adversity. Recently, correspondents Linda Kramer and Lynda Wright spoke with two 1996 Beat the Odds honorees.

Once homeless, Cochise Robertson builds a dream

Paradise, they call it—a grandiose name for the subsidized housing complex in Washington where 18-year-old Cochise Robertson Jr. lives with his mother and two younger brothers. On the bookshelf in their two-bedroom apartment, plaques honor Robertson’s achievements at Spingarn High School, including a $500 scholarship from the Korean American Grocers’ Association. “I probably shouldn’t tell you this,” he says, “but I used that money for rent. We can’t lose this apartment. It was too hard to get.”

In fact, Robertson’s young life has been a minefield. As a boy he barely knew his father, Cochise Sr., who was often in prison, mainly for drug abuse. Meanwhile, his mother, Carlene Smith, 42, a hotel chef with five children by three different men, struggled to make ends meet. Each week she would leave money on the kitchen table, and the children worked out a budget for the Laundromat and the grocery store. “Ten dollars can buy a whole lot of noodles,” Cochise says. “I learned to make a meal out of anything.” In 1989 an apartment fire destroyed most of their possessions. Later, feeling threatened by drug pushers, the family fled to live for some months with friends and relatives. In 1994 they came to Paradise, where Cochise has helped pay rent by working a variety of summer jobs.

“I never sold drugs; my brother [William, 17] and sister [Tashia, 19] have,” Robertson says. “I grew up beside them, but I was like the other half of the family.” His mother remembers there was always something different about her firstborn son. “We used to call him a little old man,” Smith recalls. “He was a normal child and would get into trouble and all, but his mind was very old, and he’d sit and listen and stare and understand everything.” While throwing himself into academic life at Spingarn, he also ran track, made the National Honor Society and was elected president of the concert choir. And this year, Robertson, who hopes to study computer engineering, won a full scholarship to Ohio State University. “He just keeps winning and winning,” says his mother. “The more hell we go through, the more he works to get out if it.” Says Robertson: “I built up this thick emotional world. I stayed quiet and aloof. I was in my own zone.”

Taunted sometimes by schoolmates resentful of his achievements, Robertson uses their jibes as fuel for his fire. “They’ve helped me work hard,” he says of his tormentors, “so I could get away from them.”

Sophia Espinoza: Out of an urban hell, a leader emerges

Until recently, Sophia Espinoza, 18, led a double life. By day she was a popular A student at Benjamin Franklin High School in the Highland Park section of Los Angeles. But at night she came home to a house full of her brother’s gang members and a hard-drinking mother. Typically, Sophia did her schoolwork to the sound of blaring music and thwacking police choppers overhead. “That’s all I have done throughout my life,” she says, “worry about what I have to deal with when I go home. I was so ashamed. I never took any of my friends to my house—never.”

It didn’t start out that way. Though their parents, Philip Espinoza and Lydia Muñoz, never married, Sophia and her brothers Philip Anthony, now 23, and Randy, 22, were born into a seemingly stable family. “I was Daddy’s little girl,” she says. But when she was 7, Espinoza walked into the kitchen to find her father, a hard hat with the L.A. water department, shooting heroin. Within four years, he left. “He had to leave, or bring us all down with him,” she says. “But I resent that he wasn’t there for me. He wasn’t a father.”

Emotionally devastated, Lydia began drinking heavily. And though Randy (now a junior at Cal State-Fullerton) stayed out of trouble, Philip Anthony didn’t. “He was one of the big guys in the Glassel Park gang,” Sophia says. “They would come over and do their partying, drinking and smoking.”

Espinoza, though, found another role model: sixth-grade teacher William Hamilton. “He inspired ambition in me,” she says. “He taught me that in order to be a leader, you have to believe in yourself; you have to try.” Hamilton, 60, recalls his star pupil warmly. “She’s a complex individual with a lot of strikes against her, and she has survived,” he says. “Some kids make you want to get up in the morning and go to school. Sophia was one of those.”

In high school, Espinoza is active in student government and maintains a 3.4 grade average—all while working five hours each day as a receptionist for a chimney maintenance company. Of late her family life has stabilized somewhat. Philip Anthony quit the gang and entered junior college last fall, and Espinoza and her mother now live with relatives. But last week, Espinoza came home from her senior prom to find her belongings strewn on the floor—her mother, who had been drinking, had trashed their room. “I just cried and thought, I hate this place,’ ” she says. “But then I thought, ‘I’ll be in a better place, after.’ ”

That will be UCLA, where she starts in August and plans to study political science. It was in her application essay that Espinoza first opened up about her tortured home life. “It just lifted a burden off me,” she says. “I’m no longer pretending to be someone else. I’m who I am now.”