One woman's promise to send Oakland children to college for the past 30 years

Hopes and dreams have been found for decades inside an old home ion busy MacArthur Boulevard in the heart of East Oakland.

It's been 31 years since Oral Lee Brown introduced herself to a group of first graders at Brookfield Elementary School and made a promise to those children and their families. 

"I just told them I wanted them I wanted to adopt the kids so many kids are not getting educated and not going to school and I'm going to do what I can do so even though I'm only making $45,000 a year I will guarantee that I will give these kids ten thousand dollars each year to be put in the bank  for their college education," Brown said.

In 1999, that day was about a promise kept. 

"There were 23 students that were in that class and 19 graduated and went onto college so you can't tell me what god can't do I didn't do it," she said.  

Oral Lee will tell you that class holds a special place in her heart but she has made room for so many more. Children have graduated and recognition has meant more donors and funding as the family she never planned for just gets bigger.

"I do call her Momma Brown. She's part of the family I'm part of her family, one of her children," said college graduate Albert Jenkins who still comes back to visit Momma Brown for help, support and straight talk.

Brown is not one to mince words. She looked right at Jenkins when asked if any of the foundation's children would have gone to college without her help.

"Not even you maybe five? Or maybe none. I don't think any of them and not because they wouldn't have the potential there would be no one there to guide them that's why guidance is so important," she said.

Jenkins says he's not sure what life would have been without Momma Brown. He grew up in a rough neighborhood and lost many friends along the way. He lost his father to violence when he was just 16. 

"It makes me literally cry because I'm living the story that she is trying to get you to understand I live that story," Jenkins said.

A teacher helped him apply for the scholarship when he was in sixth grade. 

 "To be honest with you at that time i really didn't know how to read very well or write very well," he said.  "had no idea about how I was going to go to college."

Jenkins says knowing college was an option changed everything. The scholarship gave him a peer group and support. And it gave him motivation. He learned to read in part by studying the lyrics to his favorite songs.

"As I'm walking to school I go to the lyrics and as I walk I try to look at every street sign and stop sign as I'm walking to school or going to the park," he said. "It helped me a lot  it helped me stay home it helped me stay out trouble. Sometimes I had to work extra hard to stay away from it because it would find you in the area but I was  inspired to look for and something to lose and I always felt I got into high school because of the scholarship and as I got older it became more real."

It's motivation he hopes will carry the next generation. Kids like Raylene Shah, a seventh grader at AIM School in Oakland, who is one of the newest scholarship recipients. 

"I want to own my own shop like an entreprenuer and I want to become mayor and a lawyer and then later on in my life I want to be president," Shah said. 

Shah wants all the help she can get to pursue those big dreams. AIM is a public charter school that supports college prep, but Shah still studies with the Oral Lee foundation on Saturdays, which is a requirement.

Jenkins can relate, he says he kept his head down when he lost friends to violence and stayed focused on his goal. After he  graduated from Castlemont High School in Oakland, he attended college in Florida where he graduated three years ago.

"My dad would always say the  world is bigger than Oakland and I wanted to see what he was talking about," Jenkins said.  "I'm still climbing but I don't know I'm always talking to Ms. Brown about my career choices and my life choices and I'm very hard on myself because I want to do so well."  

 Today, there are still 20 Oral Lee kids in college and more on the way. 

"We still do the same thing we have phase eight so our next phase will be phase nine," Brown said. "Right now we have first graders seventh graders and eleventh graders."  

31 years later, the promise remains the same.  

"I just want them to be whatever they want to be to live a life that will afford them whatever they want." 

Brown's life has been about promises kept. A promise that has always been about more than just dollars and cents.   

"I guess being the best person being the best Albert will be the only way  to pay her back that's all she wants she doesn't want anything in return except for us to have good life and she's created so many good lives," said Jenkins.

   

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