By the time suburban kids reach their teen years, many have accumulated more trophies, ribbons, medals, plaques, certificates and bobbleheads than they have room for on their bedroom shelves.
Not these kids.
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"All my life I was told I couldn't do nothing," says a tall, skinny 16-year-old ward of the state, who bounced around friends' couches and foster homes before DCFS sent him to live at Maryville Academy in Des Plaines. Tuesday night, in a Maryville gymnasium full of teachers, social workers, volunteers and his peers, this boy sings a song he wrote about striving to do his best, and walks away with a framed certificate honoring his accomplishments during the school year.
"I decided to put in some effort and I came out with B's and C's," he says after the award presentation. "I actually cried because I never thought I could achieve that."
Cheers, fist pumps, impromptu dances and other celebrations wave across the room as names of award winners are announced. A 19-year-old immigrant, working to overcome a childhood of physical and sexual abuse, receives an award for making it to her sophomore year in college. A 16-year-old boy with developmental disabilities proudly shows off his certificate.
"I've been working so hard. I'm working by shredding papers, using the vacuum, cleaning windows and keeping the school clean. And then I come back the next day and do it again, and they gave me an award," he says, smiling broadly and holding his framed certificate tightly with both hands. "I'm going to hang it up. That's what I'm going to do."
As organizer for Maryville's annual awards banquet, volunteer coordinator Mary Kieger makes sure each of the more than 90 kids receives an award.
"Even if they do one thing right, you have to encourage them, because there's maybe nobody who has told them they did something right," Kieger explains.
"For our kids to have it announced from the stage that they are the most improved in their math class means the world to them," says Evelyn Smith, Maryville's director of program services. "A lot of times they don't hear that they have done anything positive. All they have heard is failure."
Two of these kids were placed in 22 different foster homes in the 2½ years before finding a home in Maryville, Smith says. That makes it difficult for them to make connections and win support. "So where do they get those positive awards?" she says.
Tuesday night, they received an inspiring message from Smith.
"Don't allow your past to dictate your future," says Smith, who notes the "most improved" awards are her favorites.
"I really like the kids to know that the staff recognizes that they did improve. There is this sense of accomplishment: 'I did do this, and someone was paying attention.'"
A lawyer and former prosecutor who led the Cook County state's attorney's juvenile justice bureau from 1997 through 2004, Sister Catherine M. Ryan, now the executive director of Maryville, knows the trouble lurking for kids growing up without positive influences. In her opening prayer, the nun enthusiastically urges the residents of Maryville programs in Des Plaines, Bartlett and Chicago to learn, work hard and "become good citizens of the world."
"Tonight we're going to celebrate you," Ryan tells the young people. "We're all so proud of you."
The college girl who came to this country from war-torn western Africa when she was 6 years old is now a good student and athlete studying for a career helping adolescents.
"It was never my mindset to do something positive. It was just to rebel," she admits. "The whole thing with me is I try not to be like my dad."
That man, who turned out not to be her father, smoke, drank, did poorly in school, didn't do sports and abused her, says the young woman, who vows to do the exact opposite in her passionate commitment to change any trait that reminds her of him.
"I was born left-handed and my dad is left-handed, so now I'm right-handed," she says. She's earned academic and athletic honors before. But she makes an effort to congratulate all the girls sitting near her on their awards, some of which include simple achievements such as "improved relationship with peers" or "showing empathy for others."
That encouragement also sends the message "they can do it next year," Kieger says.
"It's my favorite night of the year, no doubt about it," says Ed Strabel, Maryville's longtime recreation director, who has helped dole out hundreds of these awards during his 35-year career. "For most of these kids, they just can't believe it."