‘Mama Brown’ to the Rescue

REALTOR® Oral Lee Brown, one of the first Good Neighbor Award winners, is still expanding her mission to mentor children out of poverty.
Oral Lee Brown and pupil Maria Baires

© Courtesy of Oral Lee Brown

REALTOR® Oral Lee Brown, right, helped her pupil, Maria Baires, attend college.

Growing up in the Mississippi Delta with 12 siblings wasn’t easy for Oral Lee Brown. Her parents picked cotton from sunup to sundown.  

“It was terrible. I grew up in the Jim Crow era. We couldn’t ride the school bus with White kids, and we had separate schools,” she says.  

At 19, Brown got on a Greyhound bus, following an older broker to California. She worked days and attended college classes at night, eventually raising three daughters and earning her real estate license. She wanted more not only for her own family but also for other children who grew up poor like her. Brown decided to encourage young students to stay in school as a way out of poverty—by offering to pay their college tuition if they graduate high school.  

In 1987, Brown approached the principal of Brookfield Elementary School in Oakland, Calif., and offered to “adopt” a first-grade class and become their mentor and benefactor. The school district graduation rate at the time hovered at 50%. Only six of the 23 children had fathers at home. Poverty, drugs and violence had a strong hold on the area. 

Brown simply told the 6- and 7-year-olds: “Stay in school, and I’ll send you to college.” They did, and she kept her promise. She soon became known as “Mama Brown.” 

“Real estate has been good to me. I was only able to ‘adopt’ those kids because of real estate,” says Brown, who earned her real estate license in 1979 and eventually opened Nationwide Realty in East Oakland, Calif.

Involving Herself in Their Lives

Over the last 37 years, Brown has helped send 165 kids to college, 35 to trade schools or apprentice programs, and others to cosmetology and barbering schools. They have become nurses, engineers, teachers, lawyers, artists, computer scientists, a doctor, welders and hairdressers. 

Nineteen of the 23 children in the first class that Brown helped went on to college. Brown would regularly mentor students, offer Saturday tutoring, and bring supplies and snacks to encourage their paths to success—encouragement that many didn’t get at home. 

“I met Mama Brown when I was just 13 years old, and she was a blessing in my life,” says Maria Baires. “It’s programs like the Oral Lee Brown Foundation that create opportunities for first-generation Latina women like me.”

With encouragement and financial support from Brown, Baires graduated from her dream school, Syracuse University, with a bachelor’s in finance and real estate. She now works as senior finance manager at Ping Identity in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

After that first group graduated from high school, Brown pledged to adopt a new class every four years. Right now, Brown mentors 11 students who are in in college, 19 in tenth grade, 22 in fifth grade, and 21 in first grade.  

Financing It All

The Oral Lee Brown Foundation’s yearly gala brings in up to $300,000, which helps cover the costs for educational supplies and college tuition. Brown now adds $20,000 of her own money to the pot each year. For many years, the bulk of her funding was $10,000 she contributed from her $45,000 annual real estate income.  

“Once the local real estate community realized I was one of the Good Neighbor Award winners [in 2000], they began to support the foundation with an annual Walk-A-Thon,” Brown says of her local board, the Bridge Association of REALTORS®. “Each year, they raise between $20,000 and $35,000—and twice, they raised $50,000.”

She has also negotiated big discounts on tuition from colleges such as University of Southern California, Berkeley. Four years ago, when tuition was $70,000, she got a call from the provost about her four students who were accepted that year. She was informed that the most she would pay for any of them was $3,000 a year.

“They reduced the fee at the college, because they know who we are. It’s been a journey. Thank God, they made it,” she says.

Three of her students have master’s degrees, one is working on a Ph.D., one was a teacher in Cambodia, and others have their unique stories. She’s attended countless high school and college graduation ceremonies all over the country.  

One of her pupils, Julius Membrere Orejudos, earned a doctorate in podiatric medicine last year and is completing a three-year residency in Chicago.  

“Mama Brown taught me to overcome the imposter syndrome I felt both in undergrad and in medical school. I’d reach out to her in my times of doubt and frustration when I compared myself to my peers,” says Orejudos, who met Brown before middle school, a first-generation college student and the son of Filipino immigrants. 

In those instances, she would push him to dig deep and persevere through the struggle. 

“She taught me to embrace my uniqueness and use that as a strength to persevere through the difficult times of my education,” he adds. “Similar to Mama Brown, I feel empowered to dedicate my life to nurturing and advocating for my community.”

Dreaming Big for the Future

Brown’s vision to keep helping economically disadvantaged kids includes building a boarding school in Oakland to give them all they need to thrive. 

“It’s almost a necessity if you look at the absentee rate,” she says. “The kids aren’t eating regularly. If I had a boarding school, the cafeteria would be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. with three meals and snacks.”

She plans to enlist area college students to offer tutoring to help with homework.  

“Truancy would be zero. We’d have a medical facility onsite with at least a nurse.”  

Brown has visited similar boarding schools in Chicago and Mississippi and is working on getting supporters. 

“It can happen. Will I be able to do it? God has all the plans,” she says.

Brown hopes that after she dies, her foundation will go on as long as possible. In case there isn’t a successor, Brown has set aside money to help the students already in the program. Any remaining funds would be given to the United Negro College Fund. 

“I look at a volunteer job the same way I look at my real estate job. You must do the best job you can to get the greatest result,” she says. “You must be knowledgeable about the subject, dedicated to what you are doing, and patient in your pursuit of excellence. Help others achieve their goals, and always be a part of the community.” 

For more information, go to oralleebrownfoundation.org.