Would you promise a room full of first-graders that if they worked hard and got good grades, you would pay for their college education? You might say, “If I were wealthy, of course, I would!” Would you still make that promise if you were making a salary of $45,000 per year?
Welcome to the remarkable story of Ms. Oral Lee Brown, who, in 1987, “adopted” an entire first grade class of 23 children at Brookfield Elementary School located in East Oakland, Cali. (Statistically speaking for that area, three out four students dropped out of school before graduating from high school.)
At the time, Ms. Brown was a realtor making $45,000 a year and raising three daughters of her own. She had no idea how she could come up with the money, but she was determined to find it. And starting in 1987, she began putting $10,000 a year into a trust fund, which she later established as the Oral Lee Brown Foundation.
Over the years, those children referred to Ms. Brown as “Mama Brown”, and she referred to them as “my kids.” To the 23 first-graders, she became a loving force. She loved them not because she had to, but because she just did. She challenged each child to strive for his or her best. In fact, she demanded it. Outside of academics, she was also there to help them buy prom dresses, shoes, and clothing, cope with family breakups or abusive parents, and many other things only Mama Brown would do. She loved them as her own.
You probably want to know what happened to the children. The great news is 19 students graduated from high school and enrolled in universities or community colleges. But there were heartbreaks too, as two students were killed in gang-related shootings, and two were lost to the drug culture.
The rate of success through Ms. Brown’s love and encouragement is astounding. And Ms. Brown did not stop with only that class of first-graders. The Oral Lee Brown Foundation continues to help children in the Oakland school district to this day. Since its inception, the foundation has sent almost 200 of Oakland’s most at-risk youths to college. In a 2013 interview, when asked about how she beat the odds, Ms. Brown said, “I don’t have a magic wand. It is hard work, determination, and love. I can’t allow mine [children] to fail.”
After reading Ms. Brown’s seemingly impossible journey, I hope that you will also ask yourself, “What can I do with hard work, determination and love?”