Promise of a free education fulfilled

July 18, 2008 7:56:23 PM PDT
An Oakland woman is celebrating a milestone. It was 20 years ago that Oral Lee Brown promised a group of first graders she would pay for their college education. She's done that and more.

Brown is on a mission to get Oakland kids into college. It's a commitment she made on the spur of the moment two decades ago.

"I don't know where it came from, but in my wildest imagination I would never have been involved with kids," says Brown.

It started when she met a child on the street outside her east Oakland real estate office asking for money for food. Brown, herself, grew up poor and struggling in Mississippi. She decided to informally adopt the first grade class at nearby Brookfield Elementary School. They became her babies.

In 1987 she promised them all a free college education.

"It's the one thing that I can give them that no one can take it away," says Brown.

Brown isn't the only person to send kids to college, but what makes her story unique is the personal sacrifice. She was making just $45,000 a year when she first started and she put $10,000 of it into a trust fund for her kids.

Latosha Hunter was one of Brown's babies. Brown gave them everything she could, from tutors, to spending money, to love. She created a foundation and held fundraisers to supplement her gift. In 1999 came one of her happiest moments -- 19 of the 23 students graduated from high school, including Hunter.

Hunter went on to college, earning a degree in accounting. She's now a branch manager for Enterprise. She's working on her masters and is still in close contact with her surrogate mom.

"I can talk to her about anything. It doesn't matter. She's been that extra guidance for me. It's been a pretty good relationship. I love Ms. Brown," says Hunter.

Not everyone from Brookfield is a success story. Some dropped out of school; one girl was murdered. Despite the setbacks, Brown decided to take on the challenge of more students.

Cynthia Adams' daughter will graduate from Xavier University next year with tuition compliments of the Oral Lee Brown Foundation.

"She's a blessing to students and to parents that want their children to go to college, cannot afford it, and she made it all happen," says Adams.

Darion Jefferson and Ronald Mills will be seniors at McClymonds High School in the fall. They hope the scholarships they receive will encourage others to stay on track.

"It's like a chain reaction, like dominoes. It inspires more kids if they put this out there, inspire way more kids to do the right thing in school," says Jefferson.

Brown has received numerous honors including a hero award from the U.S. Secretary of Education spotlighting her extraordinary promise to the children in her community, lLike 12-year-old Erick Le, who dreams of becoming an architect.

"I think she's just really a great person, just helping students like me," says Le.

"If all a child wants is an education and we in America can't give it to them, something's wrong with us," says Brown.

ABC7 salutes Oral Lee Brown for keeping her promise for the past 20 years. Her foundation is holding a fundraiser next month. For more information, visit www.oralleebrownfoundation.org.


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