By Wiley Henry

MEMPHIS, TN – Several students with varied challenges and one adult assembled around the dinning room table at Dr. Theresa M. Okwumabua’s home in Midtown on May 5 to discuss last-minute details for an upcoming awards banquet. They also went through a dry run to mitigate any problems when they recount how they beat the odds to make life better for themselves and others.

“As you share your stories, some young person can say, ‘If they can do it, I can do it, too,’” said Okwumabua, encouraging each honoree receiving this year’s Memphis “Beat the Odds” Award to speak up unabashedly at the awards banquet on May 18 at Lindenwood Christian Church, 2400 Union Ave. The banquet will start at 6 p.m.

“You’re distinguished. In addition to what you are challenged with, you are giving back to the community, and that’s why you’re being honored,” said Okwumabua, executive director of Memphis “Beat the Odds” Foundation (MBTO), now celebrating 24 years of honoring youth-driven accomplishments.

Okwumabua founded MBTO in 1994 after attending an awards dinner sponsored by children’s activist Marian Wright Edelman and the Children’s Defense Fund, of which she is founder and president.

Christen Dukes, 20, is one of seven students MBTO is honoring. He is shy and speaks softly, but his annual fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital speaks volumes.

Born six months premature and weighing two pounds, Dukes wasn’t expected to live no more than 24 hours. Since then he’s struggled with sickle cell anemia, but the pain hasn’t stopped him from advocating for St. Jude and others struggling with the disease.

“Having sickle cell as a child put everything in perspective for me,” said Dukes, an accomplished trombonist studying music at Visible Music College in Memphis. He has been the recipient of many awards and honors and often draws media attention to his cause.

Other MBTO honorees may not be as media savvy, but overcoming their adversities warrant attention. Melody Holmes, 17, was involved in a car accident during her freshman year and sustained a brain injury and other damages.

Although Melody struggled physically and underwent cognitive rehabilitation, she focused on academics at Middle College High School, from where she will graduate this year with top-tier grades. She has a 4.1 GPA. A career in accounting is part of her immediate plans.

When MBTO volunteer Christin Webb asked the honorees to write three words that define them, Melody came up with “driven.” She pondered two more words, but they wouldn’t come to mind.

Kelsea Washington, 15, is visually impaired. She’s had several surgeries to correct a condition known as Retinopathy of Prematurity, the result of being a preemie and weighing a mere 1 pound and 5 ounces at birth.

“I feel my experience being visually impaired will help kids and adults who are legally blind. My story will give them hope,” said Kelsea, an inquisitive student who plays basketball at Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering. She sings at church too.

Don’t count 16-year-old Nadir Muhammad out. He is autistic, but doesn’t consider the neurodevelopmental disorder a hindrance. Autism is characterized by speech difficulty, language and abstract concepts. Nadir is on the opposite end of the spectrum, Okwumabua said.

Nadir is a whiz at math and science. A junior at W.E.B. DuBois Academy of Arts and Technology, he averages an ‘A’ in physics. His GPA is 3.67. While school is important to him, so is volunteering to feed the homeless, collecting “pennies” for leukemia patients, and working in soup kitchens.

“My challenge has inspired me to be the best that I can be and never give up,” said 18-year-old John Christopher Cooper, explaining how his life changed after he was diagnosed at 2 with Coates’ disease, a rare congenital, nonhereditary eye disorder.

John is shy and unassuming, and doesn’t like speaking out in public, said Rochelle Cooper, John’s mother. His work, however, speaks for itself. He will graduate on May 18 from Houston High School with a 3.0 GPA.

John’s inability to see out of one eye hasn’t stopped him from focusing on extracurricular activities: participating with the Kappa League Leadership Organization, Bridge Builders, mentoring youth, and serving at church.

Natalie Lopez Gill, 19, is Hispanic. She is graduating this year from Cordova High School. The language and cultural barriers would have tripped her up, but she has persevered and learned to speak English. She volunteers a lot, too.

Corian McLemore is developmentally challenged. The label, however, hasn’t deterred this 17-year-old from giving his best at Germantown High School, where he works hard to succeed academically. He also manages the football and basketball teams and advocates for students with disabilities.

Five years ago, Okwumabua started recognizing one adult who has worked tirelessly in the community on behalf of youth and young adults. James Robinson, founder, executive director and facilitator of Metamorphoses, Inc., met the criteria. He will receive the Cathryn Rivers Johnson Award, named for the children’s advocate.

“It’s nice to be recognized. But what I do I do from my heart,” said Robinson, who teaches behavior modification to juveniles from Memphis and Shelby County Juvenile Court, the Department of Children’s Services, and Shelby County Schools. He also teaches parents to modify their behavior.