Getting Kids on Track to School Success

OTO Awards

Meet the 2017 Overcoming the Odds Awards Winners!

Jonathan Valerio (top left), Matthew Cooley (top right), Steve Ranjan (bottom left), Tileeyah Rogers (bottom right).


Jonathan Valerio
Greenburgh Eleven VFSD
Nominated by Elton Thompson, District Principal

Playing basketball with friends or watching the Cavaliers on TV seem like normal activities for a high school senior, but Jonathan is no typical teenager. Two years ago, he was placed in Children’s Village after an incident in his home, which resulted in police involvement. He initially presented as a withdrawn and unmotivated young man who rarely attempted class assignments or homework. Jonathan struggled both with the family issues that had caused his placement as well as with overwhelming frustration academically from gaps in his skills from failures and resulting truancy in previous grades. However, within the environment of the Special Act School District on the grounds, Jonathan found the motivation and voice to turn his performance around.

Determined to graduate on time, Jonathan not only made an effort to complete his current class assignments, but he also signed up for Grad Point; a web-based credit recovery program. He put great effort into his academic tasks, even though he struggled to understand the material and had to have it presented by his teachers in small increments. During the summer of 2016, Jonathan recovered some of the credits he needed to graduate and continued to work on his credit recovery while taking the required 12 th grade courses. However, he faced a further challenge: shortly into the semester, plans were made for Jonathan to be discharged and moved to a group home in the community. This would also mean a regular education setting, and Jonathan became concerned. He knew the educational support services he was receiving, such as the small class setting, group counseling, and teacher support in his school district were critical to his success.

Remarkably, after speaking with his principal, teachers, and school counselor, this reticent young man advocated for himself to be referred and evaluated for special education services and to be kept as a day student in his current district school. Results of the evaluation indicated Jonathan indeed has a significant learning disability in math processing as well as in reading comprehension. His unswerving persistence ensured him the educational support he needed to succeed in graduating from high school. Jonathan is planning on attending a vocational program after graduation to study Information Technology and perhaps one day apply this knowledge to his interest in Forensic Science. Some of Jonathan’s biggest fans and supporters are the faculty of his school. They said of his obstacles: “Jonathan’s ability to persevere and stay the course even while dealing with so many struggles is absolutely remarkable. We are so proud of him.”

Matthew Cooley, Senior
White Plains High School
Nominated by Alana Steinberg, Esq. Educational Advocate, Student Advocacy

Few have had to face the many hurdles– physical, developmental, and academic– that Matthew has faced in his life. Fewer still have turned into caring and respectful young men like Matthew. Matthew’s mother adds, “Matthew has a great sense of self that hasn’t been destroyed by the difficult bumps along the way. It wasn’t easy for him and it took time, but he has found his voice and place of comfort…”

The overwhelming obstacles began for Matthew at birth. He was born with Noonan’s Syndrome; a genetic disorder that prevents normal development in various parts of the body. This condition is characterized by mildly impaired facial features, short stature, heart defects, skeletal malformations, as well as many other symptoms. Within the first year of his life, Matthew had to undergo heart surgery to address a congenital heart defect called pulmonary valve stenosis, kidney surgery to address renal malfunctions, and surgeries for two club feet, for which Matthew required years of grueling physical therapy as well as corrective walking braces, which he continues to wear to this day. Because of Matthew’s condition, he has had to miss school, sometimes for up to a month at a time. Like many individuals who suffer from Noonan’s, Matthew has also experienced global developmental delays and cognitive impairments that have greatly impacted his ability to learn.

Despite his early and continued struggles in school, Matthew has become a conscientious student who wants to learn and wants to do well. Matthew understands his academic and emotional needs and has learned to advocate for himself at meetings of the Committee on Special Education, which determines the services and supports that he receives at school. Matthew is not afraid to try, even if he knows he may not succeed.

Matthew’s great love is musical theater. While many teenagers would be too self-conscious to act, sing, and dance on stage, Matthew is not afraid to put himself out there. Matthew has recently been accepted with a scholarship by PlayGroup Theater; a community theatre company. In addition to theater, Matthew is the Vice President for the Youth Council and is an usher and choir member in his church. With a lot of support from his mother, coupled with his strong personal drive and optimism, Matthew learned to never give up on himself. He continues to raise the bar in all that he does. His mother says that she always taught Matthew to believe in himself, she is “amazed at all the things he is can do.”

Steve Ranjan
Edgemont Jr-Sr High School
Nominated by Jayne Jacobs, Special Education Teacher

The first thing you notice about Steve is his radiant smile. He exudes positivity, kindness and a deep love for people. Like most teenagers his age, you might find him laughing with friends, watching Netflix, and playing fantasy football. However, Steve is not your average high school senior.

Steve was diagnosed with Limb Girdle Muscular Dystrophy as a young child. LGMD significantly limits Steve’s mobility, stamina, and physical strength. Steve struggles daily with basic tasks such as holding a pen, opening doors, typing, and picking up small objects. Steve is unable to use his large muscles in any way without support. As a student, Steve faces difficulties and obstacles physically, socially, and educationally.

While many young men struggle with the emotional impact from these significant limitations, Steve has learned to not let his struggles define him as a person. He says, “When I first came to school, I was so concerned what people thought of me…You can’t ignore my challenges…But, now, I am not bothered by what other people think of me.” Steve is aware of his challenges, and is realistic about his limitations. However, he maintains a positive attitude and lives life to the best of his abilities. “I see people just get out of a chair easily, and take so much for granted. This can be a struggle for me. It is so easy for them…But I try to be positive and pick out the good thing in each day and focus on that… And that motivates me… And it makes my worries a lot less.”

This positivity and resiliency has inspired the teachers, administrators, and families in his school. Steve expresses that one of the things he is most proud of in his school life is the connections and relationships he has built with his teachers in high school. One teacher expressed the overwhelming sentiment about this remarkable young man. “Steve has done nothing but ingratiate himself to anyone whom has ever been there to assist, teach-or yes, learn from him. And this is the reason our faculty felt deeply compelled to nominate this kind soul for this award. Steve has not only overcome the odds, he has blazed a trail. He has taught everyone that a severely disabled young man, is capable of teaching his teachers, mentoring his peers, and standing before the school community as an example that no matter how large the odds are stacked against you-not only can you overcome them-but you can do so while building bridges of love and kindness.”

Tileeyah Rogers
New Rochelle High School
Nominated by Jessica Dorsett-Posada Ph.D., Guidance Counselor

Talented, enthusiastic, committed, intuitive, and involved, are just a few of the words used to describe Tileeyah. Tileeyah is a real Renaissance woman in every sense of the word. She is an academic tutor to struggling students, deeply involved in the Vocal Music Department, a long- standing member of her school’s Youth Court working with troubled teens and an IGNITE mentor working with freshman students to help them transition to high school. Remarkably, she also recently wrote and produced a short film with a group of friends bringing attention to domestic violence.

In addition to her school activities, Tileeyah is very active in her church and community. For her outstanding service in her community, Tileeyah has received several awards and recognition including the Mayor’s Award for her service to youth, and the New York Film Award for her film on domestic violence.

Tileeyah had to overcome great odds to get to where she is today. Things have not come easy to Tileeyah. Tileeyah has struggled with homelessness, abuse, and neglect. In addition to this, in her last year of middle school, her family lost everything in a fire. Things did not improve for Tileeyah until she moved to New Rochelle High School and connected with a small group of close friends. They immediately realized her talents and encouraged her to take control of her destiny. Now she is thriving in every way. In her own words:

“Life has not been easy. It’s a struggle. You fall down, but then you get back up again. I have always had someone there for me during hard times…saying Tileeyah you can do this, you are better than this, you’re going to go places. And I chose to listen to them… So now, I just hum, count to ten, and keep on going…”

Tileeyah’s Guidance Counselor said this about her:” Tileeyah is a role model to many and the voice for those downtrodden. I admire her indomitable spirit, her desire to serve others, and passion for justice…”

Tileeyah plans to go to college in the fall and study film and education. The sky is the limit for Tileeyah!


What’s an OTO?

An “OTO” is our affectionate name for the Overcoming the Odds Award. (OTO rhymes with motto.) This unique awards program was created by Student Advocacy in 1996 and has been continued annually since then. Sixty remarkable young people have already been honored. Four honorees will be recognized at our OTO Awards Dinner on May 4th, 2017.

Purpose of the Awards

The most important purpose of the awards is to honor youth. When the awards are announced, most winners are surprised. Few have had any past experience when they felt successful and worthy of being honored. This experience changes that.

In addition, funds raised at the awards dinner support scholarships for OTO winners and the Overcoming the Odds project that provides educational advocacy services to help resolve the school problems of students who have significant problems which place them at-risk of school failure and/or dropping out.

During this remarkable awards ceremony, you will meet four outstanding young people from our own community who have overcome the odds and succeeded in school. Hear their inspiring personal stories and join us in honoring them.

For more information or to request an invitation, call 914-347-7039 x119 or email