The 79th annual McCormick Unsung Heroes Awards featured a Baltimore City sweep of the top awards, as Digital Harbor High’s Birhane Gebreselase and Daijah Coles from Reginald Lewis each walked away with a Charles Perry McCormick Scholarship worth $40,000 over four years of college.
Gebreselase and Coles were selected from a total of 111 honorees, nominated from the 68 Baltimore-area public, private, parochial and independent schools. The honorees and their invited guests also heard an inspirational speech from three-time Olympian Susan “Lolo” Jones, who represented the United States in track & field in the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics and in bobsledding at the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Coles and Gebreselase are the first Baltimore City duo to win the prestigious award, since McCormick began awarding scholarships to deserving female scholar athletes in 1986.
Gebreselase has used soccer to overcome incredible hardships. As a child he escaped persecution in Eritrea and spent six years alone in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, before reaching the United States and reuniting with his mother and brother.
Gebreselease said being without his family is difficult, but he discovered a new family at Digital Harbor.
“They’re always there for me,” said Gebreselase.
When he arrived as a ninth grader he spoke no English, but still attended school and soccer practice daily, with a positive attitude and a smile, never missing a day of school or practice over three years.
Digital Harbor boys soccer coach Josh Ober takes Gebreselase to school every day. He didn’t know about Gebreselease’s amazing path to Digital Harbor until the school decided to make him its McCormick Unsung nominee.
“The biggest thing about him is that he never advertises what he’s been through,” said Ober.
He pushed himself in class and on the field to grow as a human being and has become a leader to his teammates and peers by example.
“He is always positive and calm, but he’s never afraid to call people out when he needs to,” Ober said.
Lutalo Bakari, who coaches Gebreselease for indoor and outdoor track, said the senior has intestinal fortitude.
“He was able to see the task at hand not as a task but an opportunity,” said Bakari.
Gebreselase plans to attend CCBC-Essex in the fall for two years, then transfer to a four-year college.
Coles was selected to represent her school because of her unselfish behavior and good sportsmanship on her volleyball team.
“It’s cliche to say first to practice and last to leave, but that’s Dasia,” said her coach Sylvester Banks.
Banks said Coles kept a positive attitude as the team had to practice in different locations as the gym floor at Lewis was being renovated. Before the playoffs, Banks needed Cole to move from libero to setter.
“She was a hesitant at the first, but she accepted and put in extra hours,” Banks said. “Her teammates followed her, putting in time after practice.”
Coles, the first Baltimore City female first-place winner since 1993, was shocked when her name was called.
“I love representing the school,” said Coles, who will attend Bowie State in the fall. “This is amazing. This is unexpected. I’m just living in the moment.”
Four other Unsung Hero honorees also received awards on Monday. Matthew Valentine of Western Tech and Treasure Valdez of McDonogh School each earned $7,500 college scholarships as 2nd-place winners, while Leon Brooks of Ben Franklin and Helen Delgado Pineda of Owings Mills were each award $5,000 college scholarships as 3rd-place winners.
Jones, who started running because her mother didn’t have a car and needed a way to get school, overcame personal hardships to become a three-time Olympian.
“Goals are always going to shift, but never forget about the progress you’ve made,” said Jones. “It will give you motivation.”
Revisit this article several times over the next couple of days as we continue to update it with pictures, quotes from our winners and their coaches, and video interviews with our winners and numerous other honorees.