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Students Overcome Odds, Learn to Believe in Themselves : Honors: Children's Defense Fund rewards four who got back on academic track.


Robert Deshion Webb's mother got hooked on drugs in his freshman year at Jordan High School, using the family's money to support her habit. Webb began cutting classes, loud-mouthing teachers and fighting at school. After a death threat from a gang member at school, his grades dropped to Ds and Fs.

In her sophomore year at Washington Prep High, Mariah Andrea Boykin's mother died of a heart attack and the family decided she would live with a sister in Las Vegas. Two years, two schools and several moves later, Boykin wound up in a home for neglected children in Nevada. Soon after, a hyper thyroid condition left her with bulging eyes and debilitating headaches.

Yet the two managed to stay out of trouble and remain committed to their studies.

And for their efforts to stay straight, Webb and Boykin have been honored by the Children's Defense Fund, which also selected two other Central Los Angeles students and one from San Bernardino County for its annual Beat the Odds Awards.

During an Oct. 9 ceremony at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, each was awarded $1,000, an internship with MCA/Universal and new clothes. Now, the students say, the praise and adulation has only increased their determination to stay on track.

"I have to rely on myself," said Boykin, 17, now a freshman at San Diego State University. "I always felt, 'Why run away? Why drink? It's just going to make the situation worse.' "

For each, there was a time when giving up seemed easier than dealing with problems.

Bell Gardens High junior Rachel Mendez's father died five years ago; she has seen her long-errant mother only occasionally since. She said she lost interest in school last year after a visit from her mother ended abruptly. "It got me mad," said Mendez, 16, who has helped her grandfather raise a brother and two sisters. "How could she do this? She said she'd be there, but then she left."

A talented dancer and hurdler, Mendez began cutting class and hanging out with the "wrong crowd." As her grades dropped below a C average, she became ineligible for dance and track, and ended up in a class for troubled students.

Boykin also knows how trouble at home can quell the desire to learn. A B-plus student at Washington High, she saw her grades drop to Cs in Las Vegas, where she argued incessantly with an "overbearing, abusive" sister struggling with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy and other problems. "I wasn't sure whether I should start working real hard, because I might have to pick up and leave," Boykin recalled. "What was the use of doing all that work if I wasn't going to stay?"

Even in the midst of uncertainty, however, the students succeeded in turning their lives around.

Relying on the guidance of yet another sister, Boykin returned to Los Angeles where she was readmitted to Washington High for her senior year. There she earned a 3.8 grade-point average and applied for 21 private scholarships as well as state and federal assistance for college. She wants to be a social worker and counsel runaways.

Webb, now making up classes he failed so that he can graduate in June, decided to hit the books last fall when his mother decided to seek professional help for her drug problem. "When she has a downfall, all of us have a downfall. When she does good, all of us do good," said Webb, 17, who cared for his three younger brothers when his mother was caught up in drugs. "Right now, all of us are getting back on our feet. She's got a job and I'm getting good grades."

Indeed, counselors and teachers played pivotal roles in each of the student's successes.

Rachel Mendez's teachers enticed her back to academics by allowing her to participate in dance class--even though her grades left her ineligible. The effort paid off. Mendez's grades are above the required C average to participate in the class, and she plans to perform a solo in the school's spring dance concert.

South Gate High sophomore Luis Parra was taken in a year ago by a junior high dance teacher, the first stable home Parra had known in more than five years. Parra was born to teen-age parents in a small Mexican border town across from Yuma, Ariz. He crossed the border alone at age 11 to live with an uncle, and has been shuffled among friends and relatives since then.

"I grew up so fast," said Parra, 15. "I hung around with (the) bad crowd. I knew what it was like to drink and smoke and party. I don't want to be one of those people who say, 'I regret I didn't do more.' "

Parra is optimistic about his future. He hopes to use his talent as a folklorico dancer in an acting career, and the $1,000 award will go for dental braces.

Things also are looking up for the others.

Webb, whose mother is off drugs and working again, wants to study computer programming and electrical engineering at a technical college after he graduates. Mendez hopes to get a college degree and teach dance. And Boykin is working diligently toward her social work degree.

"In spite of all the dire things we read about and hear about, there is still hope for those who refuse to quit," said Linden P. Beckford, Boykin's college counselor at Washington High. "The message here is: Good things do happen if indeed you believe enough to just keep going."

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