Loudoun’s legal community on Thursday celebrated the accomplishments of six high school seniors who overcame domestic abuse, homelessness, and depression to graduate and pursue college degrees.
The Loudoun County Chapter of Beat the Odds bolstered the students’ efforts by awarding scholarships, ranging from $1,000 to $10,000. The chapter was founded by the Loudoun County Bar Association and the Sheriff’s Office. Since 1993, the organization has awarded more than $130,000 in scholarships to 49 students.
Teachers and counselors nominated this year’s scholarship winners.
The top winner this year was Kenneth Kratz from Woodgrove High School. He was nominated by counselor Donna Kelly, who met him during his freshman year. Trouble at home, including a drug abusing father and incidents of domestic abuse, left Kratz depressed and suicidal. Kelly referred him for an emergency evaluation that resulted in a stay in a psychiatric hospital. Kratz’s struggles continued until his mother, who was suffering from cancer, left the house and took him with her. It was then that Kratz began to see a hopeful future. His grades improved and he challenged himself with tougher classes in school.
Speaking in the county’s old courthouse Thursday evening, Kratz was confident and articulate, telling the crowd of his plans to pursue a doctoral degree in political science.
“It is so easy to focus on the tears, the suffering, the anguish that caused me twice to attempt to take my life,” he said. “But today I do not want my message to be one of simple survival.”
His advice to others is to believe wholeheartedly that life will be better and then endeavor to make it so. “Today I stand before you the happiest I’ve ever been in my life,” he said.
“Do not give up,” Kratz said. “Though the struggle may be great and the silent suffering unbearable, it will one day end. And it will end with a life more joyful and greater than you ever could have imagined.”
Kelly said the transformation his freshman year was remarkable and she had little doubt that “Dr. Kratz” would succeed.
Kratz was awarded a $10,000 scholarship and a laptop.
A special merit award was given to Hawatu Davowah of Freedom High School. Davowah overcame an abusive and demeaning mother to succeed in school and to pursue international studies in college. She was awarded $5,000 and a laptop.
Rami Zein, of Rock Ridge High School, was awarded a $3,000 merit scholarship. Zein, who is gay, was ostracized by his family and was kicked out of the house after parental beatings and a stint at military school failed to realign his sexual orientation. Left homeless, Zein lived with friends and other families, couch surfing as he completed school. This year he was one of only 10 male students selected to attend the Pace School for the Performing Arts. Zein said he would continue to be a voice for those made
homeless because of their sexual orientation, many of who succumb to the dangers of street life. “I’m one of the lucky ones,” he said.
A $3,000 merit award also was presented to Sarah Siaf, of Broad Run High School. She overcame severe depression and anxiety and will attend Virginia Commonwealth University’s Honor College.
Honorable mention scholarships were awarded to Caitlin Toland of Heritage High School and Julissa Martinez of Rock Ridge High School.
“‘Relentless’ seems to be the theme of the evening and all of you certainly are
relentless,” Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Judge Pamela Brooks said, adding that another “R” word also described the group. “You are each remarkable and we are all blessed that you have shared your stories with us, and I think we are all blessed that you are part of our community.”
Beat the Odds is supported by a number of fundraisers throughout the year. On Aug. 19, the second annual National Pan-Hellenic Council golf event contributes proceeds to the program. Information on the event, including registration and sponsorship opportunities, can be found at golf.nphclcevents.com.