Southwest students beat the odds

The Children's Defense Fund presented &#8220Beat the Odds” scholarships for $4,000 to two Southwest students in an awards ceremony on Feb. 15.

Westenley Alcenat, who attends Southwest High School, and Katherine DeSantis of Washburn High School were among the four Minnesota kids honored for their extraordinary efforts to excel in the face of adversity. Both have survived extreme poverty and violence to achieve academic excellence.

Alcenat's tale begins in Haiti, where he lived as a youngster surrounded by violence. He lost his parents there, who were killed by soldiers. He grew accustomed to the sight of dead bodies and the sound of screams.

It took Alcenat four years to become a U.S. citizenship after fleeing Haiti. Now he's a burgeoning poet known in the school hallways for his constant smile and 3.2 grade point average (GPA). In his spare time, he volunteers at local hospitals and schools. He wants to study healthcare at Macalester College and ultimately aspires to return to Haiti to help others living in the kind of circumstances he did.

When DeSantis was a youngster, she and her mom fled from her abusive father. Since then, they've struggled to find a permanent place to live. They've been homeless seven times and frequently in and out of shelters.

DeSantis hopes that her industriousness in school will catapult her into a better life. She maintains a 3.4 GPA and is involved in numerous student organizations, including student council, National Honor Society, drama, choir, Gay Straight Alliance, GLBT support group and varsity cheerleading. She's interested in majoring in political science and sociology at Boston University.

The Children's Defense Fund established the scholarship in 1990 as a way to recognize promising kids who achieve academically despite significant obstacles. Counselors, teachers, principals, social workers and/or other adults submit recommendations. Qualified kids must do well in school and exhibit leadership. They also write an essay about what kinds of hurdles they've overcome. This year, 42 students statewide applied.

The scholarships are offered in collaboration with the Dr. Phil Foundation. For more information about the scholarship and how to apply, check out