Education Pays Dividends

One woman shows how investing in children's education can produce a windfall

If you’ve ever wanted to know what the power of compound interest can do, just ask Oral Lee Brown, a successful real estate broker in Oakland, California. In 1987, Brown began saving $10,000 of her own money each year toward the cost of higher education for a class of first grade students she “adopted” at Brookfield Elementary School in Oakland. Today, by simply using interest-bearing savings accounts, she has managed to grow her personal contributions, and those of others, into a fund that pays the tuition, room, and board for 19 of the original 23 first-grade students she offered to help attend college.

Brown, 56, is founder and CEO of the Oral Lee Brown Foundation (OLB), which she established 13 years ago to provide a college education for one class of disadvantaged children at Brookfield Elementary. The success of her effort has led the Foundation to expand both its fundraising operations and mission. This year, OLB will offer 20 ninth-graders, 20 fifth-graders, and 20 first-graders, from various schools throughout Oakland, the opportunity to have their college education paid for. Brown says, “The goal, after 2005, is to have a group of 15320 kids graduate from college every year.” By putting her own money on the line to educate these children, Brown demonstrates the incredible impact of committing oneself to DOFE principle No. 7: to use a portion of my personal wealth to strengthen my community.

A native of Batesville, Mississippi, Brown was motivated to create the OLB Foundation after a little girl asked her for some spare change on a street corner while she was on her way to work in 1987. After buying a bag of groceries for the girl to take home, Brown couldn’t shake the feeling that there had to be something else she could do to help other children like that little girl have a brighter future. Brown’s resolve led her to Brookfield, where she pleaded with the principal and the parents to allow her to visit the children weekly, and she offered to pledge $10,000 a year to send them to college.

Brown had several meetings with the school board and parents and also underwent a background check, before she was granted permission to “adopt” her first class in December 1987.

“What was really impressive was that she gave of herself,” says Yolanda Peeks, the executive director of the Oakland Unified School District, who was Brookfield’s principal when OLB was officially formed in 1989. “She went out of her way to provide encyclopedias, books, computers, and opportunities for the kids and parents to get together outside of school hours. The scholarship contributions became secondary.”

Next, she had to set up an account to make sure that the money she was going to earmark for the children would be there when they were ready to go to college. Therefore, she established a trust fund at Home Savings of America (now Washington Mutual Bank) in Oakland, with herself, Peeks, and a local clergy member, Minister Frank Gilbert of the Love Temple

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