One sunny afternoon in November 1987, a little girl in pigtails stopped Oral Lee Brown
She expected the girl, who looked about 8, to head straight for the candy. But the child instead chose staples: a loaf of bread, some cheese, and bologna.
Outside, Brown asked the little girl, "Why aren't you in school?" She only shrugged. Brown asked: "Don't you go to school?" Her answer: "Sometimes." Then the light changed, and Brown watched her walk away.
Brown never saw the girl again, but she couldn't shake the feeling that the children in her blighted East Oakland, Calif., neighborhood were in trouble, and someone had to help. Working with her minister and a local school principal, Brown found a way. She "adopted" a first-grade class at nearby Brookfield Elementary School. There, she made a promise to the students: "Stay in school and I'll send you to college."
At Brookfield student scores were among the lowest in the country, and crime was more real to the students than college. "I bet you every one of my babies could tell you about somebody they've seen get killed or at least get shot," says Brown. "It was a challenge to just survive--let alone get an education."
Most of the children in Brown's adopted class lived in poverty. Only four had fathers at home.
With her promise, Brown became benefactor, mentor, and second mother to 23 first-graders. She began with regular visits, Saturday tutorials, and parent meetings. She tracked each child's attendance and grades; brought gifts; and purchased supplies.
To prepare for the colossal tuition bill, Brown put $10,000 of her own money into a trust account each year. It wasn't easy money: In 1987 she was earning $45,000 a year as a real estate broker. She also held fundraisers every year--with mediocre results, until recent corporate donations bumped the college fund to $579,000. To reach graduation day, Brown still needs to raise about $350,000, she says.
Getting together the tuition money hasn't been Brown's only hurdle. She has sometimes filled more basic needs. "I agreed to send these kids to college--I didn't agree to raise them," says Brown, who reared three daughters of her own. "But when a child calls me and says, 'Mrs. Brown, I can't go to school tomorrow because I don't have any shoes,' I have no other choice but to leave my office, pick him up, and take him to get shoes."
Thirteen years since she made her promise, both Brown and her first-graders have kept their end of the bargain: 19 are in their second year of college, and others are in junior college, cosmetology school, and cooking school. Only one member of that class failed to cash in on Brown's promise. He died, when he was 13, playing Russian Roulette.
Brown finds strength from her past. "I grew up in rural Mississippi having nothing in terms of the material things in life. But what I did have was a solid foundation, a mother and father who gave me all of their love."
That's what she's tried to give for 13 years, through field trips to a farm, camping trips, Christmas presents, and, later, career counseling. A few years ago, she took the high-schoolers to Atlanta to visit colleges. Last year, she attended graduations at nine different high schools, and she personally accompanied each student to college.
Brown's dedication isn't lost on the children. "She's always been 100 percent behind me," says LaTosha Hunter, 19, who's majoring in accounting at Alcorn State University in Mississippi. "When I didn't make the dean's list last semester, I thought she'd be disappointed in me. But instead she said, 'Now you have a goal to strive for.' That really made my day."
Despite her successes, Brown has never stopped wondering about the girl who asked her for a quarter. "If I had one wish," she says, "it would be for a young lady to come up to me and say, 'I'm that little girl, and I'm okay.'"
How to contact The Oral Lee Brown Foundation
Oral Lee Brown
9901 MacArthur Blvd.
Oakland, Calif. 94605