Friday, Apr 20, 2018
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Rose Russell

Exceptional woman alters lives

SOMETIMES, to propel someone ahead on what looks like an impossible task, all you have to do is doubt them. Just tell them their quest is too daunting and virtually impossible, and that they don't have the money or the wherewithal to succeed.

That can provide the inspiration to prove the naysayers wrong.

That happened to Oral Lee Brown in 1987 when she told two dozen first graders at one of the poorest performing elementary schools in Oakland, Calif., to remain in school and she would pay their way through college. Many have since graduated from college, and some are in graduate school.

When Mrs. Brown told the principal that she wanted to "adopt" the class at Brookfield Elementary School, the administrator was stunned. Along comes a woman out of practically nowhere, wanting to adopt a classroom of youngsters growing in a blighted neighborhood. Most of them didn't have a father in their homes, and many knew more about killing than a lot of adults.

It didn't look promising for the real estate agent to send children she didn't know to college. And Mrs. Brown hadn't yet told her husband or their three daughters about her plan before she made the promise.

But that didn't stop her, or her challenge, and it would make her a star in the lives of that first group of first graders and their families. It also made her a media darling and earned her awards.

Most of the former first graders have now graduated from high school - a remarkable feat in a time when so many students drop out.

Some of Mrs. Brown's charges have graduated from college, too. That's also significant when so few East Oakland students have the grades to enter a state school. They hold bachelor's and associate's degrees, having studied criminal justice, business, accounting, nursing, and other fields.

Not all of the original group made it that far. A 21-year-old girl who had decided to study cosmetology was shot and killed. A boy, 13, died while playing Russian Roulette.

"The world doubted us," Mrs. Brown told CNN's Rick Sanchez last month. "I was told that, 'lady, you cannot do it.' And I would say, 'you know what? These kids are just like any other kid. The only thing that they don't have [is] the love and they don't have the support.' "

It didn't matter that at the time Mrs. Brown's annual salary was $45,000, hardly enough to put a class full of students through college.

Eventually she established a foundation and committed to depositing $10,000 a year through 1999.

Now, as the program continues to put students through college, she hosts fund-raisers. Mrs. Brown has traveled the media circuit and is the subject of a book, "How One Woman Made Good on Her Extraordinary Pact to Send a Classroom of First Graders to College."

Although the challenge was monumental, Mrs. Brown never doubted herself. After all, she grew up in rural Mississippi and daily picked cotton for the $2 that her family lived on.

That was decades ago; she's now 62. Even though she grew up in a family that didn't have all the material possessions, she had the love, discipline, and high standards necessary to one day impact so many young lives.

She knew what it took to convince some of the poorest performing children that they could rise above low expectations.

Mrs. Brown's journey began on her way to her routine stop in an Oakland store one morning.

She met a little girl who asked for change because she was hungry. Mrs. Brown took her into the store to make a purchase, and the child gathered staples, like bread and lunch meat that Mrs. Brown paid for.

On their short walk from the store, Mrs. Brown learned that the child went to school "sometimes." However, she then disappeared.

Mrs. Brown tried to find the little girl, figuring she attended Brookfield, in the same neighborhood as the store. She never saw the child again.

But the experience inspired Mrs. Brown on her 20-year-long venture.

So much for telling her it couldn't be done.

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