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a passionate repentance

Not a proper entry, this just gives me a happy.

Not a proper entry, this just gives me a happy.

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Updated: 01:44 PM EDT
Woman Keeps Promise to Put Class Through College

Michael Tatmon hugs benefactor Oral Lee Brown at graduation.

HAYWARD, Calif. (June 14) - Michael Tatmon stood on the stage of the community college, a brand-new diploma in his hand, his eyes raking the crowd. Standing at the front of the audience, an elegantly dressed woman waved madly. "Yeah!" Oral Lee Brown yelled to Tatmon.

The hundreds of people sitting in the wind-swept courtyard of Chabot College didn't know they were watching a dream come true - for both Tatmon, the student, and Brown, his benefactor.

It was 17 years ago when their paths first crossed.

Tatmon was a student at an inner-city Oakland elementary school with some of the lowest test scores in the district, living in a neighborhood beset by temptation and transgression.

Tatmon, now 23, only vaguely remembers the day Brown walked in and told his first-grade class she would pay for them to go to college - if they got that far.

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It wasn't until much later that he realized what that meant.

"I just know a lady came and said that she was going to end up paying for us to go to school," he says. "In high school, it started to come to reality. I started really understanding more."

Brown, a real estate agent, had been moved to make her unusual promise after a chance encounter with a hungry little girl skipping school. At the time, 1987, she was making about $45,000 a year and the idea that she could set aside $10,000 a year in a trust fund as promised seemed about as far-fetched as the hope the children would be able to live up to their part of the bargain.

Still, Brookfield Elementary officials were soon won over as Brown became a fixture, meeting with children, meeting with parents, drumming home her message: You can do better.

"It has been a job," Brown says simply. "It's something I have to do as long as I am able to do it."

More on This Story

· Oral Lee Brown Foundation
· Finding a College
· How to Pay for College

Brown wasn't the first to shepherd strangers to college. In 1981, businessman Gene Lang was moved to guarantee college funding when he gave a speech at his old elementary in New York City's Harlem neighborhood.

Today, The "I Have a Dream" Foundation founded by Lang has seen 180 projects in 27 states and has served more than 13,000 students, says Marina Winton, president of the organization.

Though not all the sponsors are wildly rich, the endeavor does require a significant financial commitment. And just telling a child that college is an option isn't enough. The key is daily contact and mentoring by a caring adult, either the sponsor or a hired project coordinator, Winton says.

"Essentially, we're taking kids where they're typically graduating at a rate of 20 to 40 percent and we're converting those rates to 60 to 100 percent," Winton says.

Over the years, Brown has become an established fund-raiser, creating the Oral Lee Brown Foundation and holding an annual dinner that has helped swell the college fund to about $375,000. She keeps the money in a trust - "I can't afford to put the kids' future on Wall Street."

Brown saw three of her Brookfield students graduate college last year - "They've reached the mountain," she says - and this year three more are graduating.

Meanwhile, she is sponsoring 89 new students from Oakland schools, selecting them by soliciting applications districtwide two years ago from grades 5 and 7. "The need is still there," she says.

When she meets a new group of students, she asks them the same thing she asked Tatmon and his classmates: "What are your dreams? Do you want to go to college?"

Typically, every little hand goes up - so Brown tries to explain what it's going to take.

They have to get up every morning excited to go to school. They have to ask questions and not be afraid if they don't understand something. Ask, it's OK. You won't feel like a dummy, and even if you do, so what? Dummies need answers, too.

Of the original 23 Brookfield students, 19 went to college and many are taking longer than four years to finish, often because they must take care of turmoil at home.

Some decided to take a different path, which Brown doesn't count as a failure; she's proud of the young man who dropped out of college to follow his dream of becoming a firefighter.

Some have fallen along the way. Tracy Easterling was shot as she walked down a street in Oakland. She was 21 years old.

"That was real hard," Tatmon said. "That took a toll out on everybody."

But there were triumphs, too, like the girl who was temporarily sidelined by an unexpected pregnancy but is now finishing college and taking care of her 6-year-old.

"That's life," Brown says. "If they had been angels and perfect little kids they would have never needed Ms. Brown anyway."

06/14/04 01:24 EDT

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. The information contained in the AP news report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press. All active hyperlinks have been inserted by AOL.
  • Wasn't that a great story? Out of the hundreds of awful news stories we see in the day, it's always nice to see a good one (even if it has sad bits).
  • Thank you for that bright spot, even with the sad bits.

    I'd SO much rather hear wonderful things like this than who JLo is dating/marrying/dumping this time.
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