Keylah Garcia Sacco doesn’t ruminate on her step father’s sexual assault, her mother’s neglect and physical abuse or the long nights alone forced to study a language she couldn’t yet understand. It was Loudoun Judge Pamela Brooks’ recommendation to apply to a little-known assistance program called Beat the Odds, following the prison sentencing for her mother and stepfather’s abuses, that most shaped her life.
Applying to Beat the Odds would boost Garcia Sacco on her way to a nursing degree from Chamberlain College and to start a family with her husband. She is among 55 students that BTO Loudoun has helped lift from shocking depravity to the precipice of their dreams.
Now in its thirteenth year of operation, BTO Loudoun is getting ready to celebrate this year’s scholarship recipients in an award ceremony at 6 p.m. May 25 at the old Leesburg courthouse.
Beat the Odds was first founded by the Children’s Defense Fund. In 2004, the Loudoun County BTO program was formed. Operating under the Loudoun Bar Foundation, BTO Loudoun, is a nonprofit program that gives scholarships to graduating high school seniors who have overcome adversity.
“People don’t get this part. A lot of our kids are not on anyone’s radar… and they work very hard to keep it that way,” said Bonnie Hoffman, co-Chair and a driving force behind the Loudoun chapter.
The number of winners varies from year to year, partly driven by the quality of applicants, and partly driven by the amount of money BTO Loudoun raises. In 2005, the organization gave out a single scholarship for around $2,500. Last year it gave out six total scholarships with a technology grant totaling just under $25,000, Hoffman said.
To date, BTO Loudoun has given a total $150,000 in scholarships between 55 students.
“The thing about this is, a lot of the kids… don’t think of themselves as kids who should be looking for scholarships,” Hoffman said.
Apart from financial aid, Hoffman said the recognition does something even more important — it shows these students that their community values them and believes they can succeed. Two BTO Loudoun recipients have earned master’s degrees — one from Columbia and one from UVA — one, 2009 BTO winner, Jessica Murray, is in a PhD program at the University of Pennsylvania, one is in med school and another is in law school at UVA.
“These kids, when they graduate, they go into teaching, social work, medicine and nursing and justice,” Hoffman said. “They’re kids who really value being a community member, so investing in one of these kids means not just giving one of these kids a chance to go to college, you’re really giving your community a chance to have somebody in it who’s going to bring tremendous value back to their community.”
Garcia Sacco became the top 2012 BTO scholarship recipient and went on to earn an Associates Degree in General Studies at Northern Virginia Community College. She later got married and was accepted into Chamberlain College of Nursing in August 2016. She will be graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing in December 2018. Garcia Sacco said without BTO, this may have not been possible.
For years, Garcia Sacco was sexually abused by her step father and emotionally and physically abused by her mother. She was forced to care for her three younger sister, taking the brunt of much of the physical abuse from her mother. She did all that while teaching herself English in her early academic career without an academic support system that could assist her outside of school, and still keeping up with her studies.
Her mother and stepfather were eventually arrested for the abuse and she and her sister were placed in foster care. This freed Garcia Sacco from the present threats, and the advice to apply for BTO Loudoun helped open her future.
“BTO allowed me to get through the start of a new path in my life,” Garcia Sacco said. “Not only that, but the meaning of BTO allowed me to be proud of myself, realizing that I am a resilient person and overcame so much at a young age. Therefore, I can overcome anything that comes my way in the years to come.”
Not only does receiving an award empower a student, it also shows recipients that there are other students who have faced extraordinary adversity, just like them.
“They may not share the same exact problem, but because these are the kinds of things you keep very much to yourself, you don’t really realize that there are other kids who are struggling in a same way,” Hoffman said. “So we find that our kids start to bond with one another and gain some strength knowing there are other kids like them, and starting to build a little network of support for one another which is really important. Because you don’t necessarily want to share with your new friends at college about what’s going on in your household.”
As the organization continues to grow, Hoffman hopes to find more community partners to start a mentorship program so that they could provide students with a summer job or internship with a stipend in their area of interest.
“Sometimes it’s hard to balance some of the career growth opportunities with the need to earn some money so they can pay their bills to go to school,” Hoffman said.
BTO Loudoun usually hosts a fundraiser in the spring and is hoping to start another annual fundraiser in the fall. Other local organizations also fundraise on BTO Loudoun’s behalf, in addition to getting individual donations over the course of the year.
Although BTO Loudoun is known for helping marginalized students get their foot in the door in college, what the organization really looks to do is empower and recognize students that often go unseen. Garcia Sacco said that while the money was great, the acknowledgement became a gift that kept giving. She advises graduating seniors who have dealt with struggles to apply for the award, and to remember the award means so much more than the money it gives.
“Everyone goes through different adversities in their lives but in the end, not everyone is able to make something great out of their adversities. More importantly I would tell the upcoming graduates and recipients to be proud of themselves because they have beat the odds other people can’t overcome,” Garcia Sacco said.