Twenty-three years ago, a real estate agent in Oakland, California, made a pledge to a class of neighborhood first-graders: ‘Stay in school and do your homework and I’ll send you to college.’ The woman known as Mama Brown only made $45,000 at the time, but she saved every extra dollar over the next 12 years to make good on her promise. Of those 23 first-graders offered the gift of a lifetime, a gift for full tuition and room and board, 19 went on to college. In comparison- of the other first-grade class in that same inner-city Oakland school, only four graduated from high school.
In a city with the highest crime dropout rates in the state, Brown is an educational fairy godmother offering hope to kids for whom college might not be possible otherwise. Students in Brown’s program must maintain a 2.5 GPA and attend study sessions. It has been 11 years since Mama Brown’s first class of first-graders graduated from college. Now, hundreds of students compete for one of 20 full-ride scholarships she offers every three years. The businesswoman no longer shoulders the financial burden alone. She created the Oral Lee Brown Foundation to make sure every deserving but underprivileged child has the opportunity to make something of his or her life.
An aspiring neurosurgeon who was selected by Brown when he was in third grade says the promise of a college education makes him work harder. “I’ll ask a kid, ‘What do you want to be?’ and no one has ever told me, ‘I want to be a dope dealer.’ “They want to be somebody; they want to be something.”