The event: The 23rd annual “Beat the Odds” awards dinner, benefiting the Children’s Defense Fund-California and honoring five outstanding students who overcame near-overwhelming personal obstacles to achieve academic success.
The scene: The star-studded A-list affair at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Thursday included numerous long time CDF supporters, plus newcomers to the cause, such as Matt Damon, who said he and his wife, Luciana Barroso, were there for the first time at the invitation of friends and looking forward to the program.
The crowd included J.J. Abrams, Kevin Huvane, Jennifer Garner, Reese Witherspoon, Conan O’Brien, Jeff Garlin, Columbus Short and Jurnee Smollett-Bell, who all participated in ceremonies that included remarks by CDF President Marian Wright Edelman. Awards were bestowed on students Marilyn Bravo, Stephanie Fabian, Alezaihvia Melendez, Alexis Metcalfe and Jerry Gonzalez. More co-chairs were Laura and Casey Wasserman, Carol and Frank Biondi, Katie McGrath, Josiah Bell, Ruth-Ann Huvane, Liza O’Brien and Jim Toth.
Quotes of note: During the reception, Abrams said his favorite part of the evening was seeing so many past honorees return to show their support. “To a person, they want to come back and help others,” he said.
Later from onstage, Smollett-Bell introduced Wright Edelman as “my hero, my ‘she-ro,’ my idol,” before the noted activist — a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among other awards — ascended the podium to recognize the honorees, saying she felt renewed, understanding that CDF is “creating new leaders, new future Mandelas and Martin Luther Kings and Rosa Parks.”
“Talk about beat the odds,” she said, in closing, to acknowledge the passing that day of South African civil rights icon Nelson Mandela. “Here’s a man who went through extraordinary hardship, spent 27 years on Robben Island under the most harsh conditions, walked out ramrod straight, unbowed and full of the spirit of reconciliation...If he could do what he did in abolishing apartheid and bringing about reconciliation in his nation, we can do what we have got to do to end racism and poverty in America.”
The numbers: The event raised $1 million, with 420 guests, tickets priced from $500 and tables available for as much as $100,000. Students will each receive a $10,000 college scholarship, in addition to support services.
Ellen Olivier founded the Society News LA online magazine.