Oral Lee Brown was raised in poverty in the rural South. At 18, she moved to Oakland, attended college and opened a realty business. Then, in 1987, Brown, an Oakland realtor, made a remarkable decision that all began simply with a midday meeting outside a grocery store with a 9-year old girl asking for a quarter to buy food.

Realizing this girl should have been in school, Brown took her inside the store and spent time with her buying bread and bologna. Moved by this encounter, Brown went to the local elementary school three weeks later and told the principal that she wanted to adopt and tutor a class weekly in hopes to someday send them all to college. She asked for the most challenging class and then, amazingly, offered all 23 first-grade children in that class a full-ride to college, if they graduated. From that first group of 23 (in a school system regularly graduating only 54%), 19 would later graduate from high school and enroll in college!

Brown eventually established the Oral Lee Brown Foundation and, to date, 136 students have received tutoring, mentoring, and financial support from the foundation. As well, 90 to 95 percent of her classes have graduated over the years, with around 150 kids going to college.

More recently, Brown has also started a Saturday school for children and is raising money to start a large boarding school as a safe haven for children.

4 lessons we can learn from Oral Lee Brown’s inspiring vision and commitment to inner city Oakland youth:

1. Believe in others when they may not believe in themselves!

Brown’s persistent belief (and accompanying action) with “her kids” over many years has truly changed their belief in themselves as much as their academic destinies and future.

2. Great endeavors can begin in the smallest, momentary acts of compassion!

For Brown it all began with a midday chance encounter in 1987. A young girl who asked for a quarter outside of a grocery store lead to a foundation that has put over 100 kids into college.

3. Long-term, persevering commitment will have dramatic results!

Brown has stuck with each of “her kids” through thick and thin over the years, supporting them in multiple ways consistently. That’s made all the difference when they wanted to quit, met difficult obstacles, had no family support at all, or just needed reassurance along the way.

4. Let obstacles become fuel and opportunity for growth and greater achievements!

Over the years some of Brown’s students dropped out of college or just pursued classes in fits and starts because of their battle between their own aspirations and their parents’ low, negative expectations. This has been one of Brown’s biggest frustrations. But instead of it remaining an obstacle, she decided to address it by beginning to require the kids’ parents to sign a contract that they would stay involved and actually help in their children’s lives as a condition for participation.