As a teen growing up in North Philadelphia, Terri J. Brown didn’t think college was in the cards for her. Prison seemed more likely. “I was fighting and getting kicked out of schools,” she says. “I sold drugs for a time, and I found myself being disrespectful to my mom.”
Eventually her mother had had enough. When Brown turned 17, her mother sent her to live with her father and stepmother—a move that may have saved Brown’s life. Brown’s new home provided more structure, and her father introduced her to people at church who took her under their wing. “One woman in particular hung in there with me,” Brown recalls. She even talked a wayward Brown into applying to college, an option Brown had never seriously considered.
Fast-forward a few years and Brown’s success story could have ended after she graduated from Lincoln University, but it didn’t.
“I wanted to go back to where I grew up and show the youth that there are alternatives,” says Brown, now 33. “Give them an opportunity to see something different so that they could become something different.”
So in an effort to help teenage girls blossom where they are, Brown launched We Are S.E.E.D.S. Inc. (www.weareseeds.org) in 2003. The organization—whose acronym stands for Sisters Empowering Excellence, Determination, and Success—sends mentors into the community to work with girls between the ages of 11 and 18 to help them increase their self-esteem, discourage promiscuity, and make responsible choices. Mentors present workshops, take girls on field trips, and expose them to educational and career options so that they, like Brown, can envision a college education and a different life for themselves.
Knowing nothing about starting a nonprofit, Brown at first, “just wanted to go and snatch every girl off the corner and then point her in the right direction.” she recalls. But instead, she developed a plan of attack and started approaching local schools with her ideas for teaching young girls self-esteem. In a matter of months, schools, churches, and other youth organizations were inviting Brown to work with their teens.
As demand for the organization grew, funding became an issue. Brown, who was working full time as a graduate coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania, paid for activities and workshops out of her own pocket, but interest in the program exceeded her funds. So she sought 501(c)(3) status, which would allow her to receive tax-deductible contributions and start applying for grants.
Today, the organization runs on donations and spends between $150,000 and $175,000 mentoring about 250 girls per year. The organization’s impact is evident in its 0% teen pregnancy and high school dropout rate. Grades of girls in the program improve by about 75%, which is monitored through tutoring services. The organization is working on funding for a full-time staff.
Having beaten the odds in her personal life, Brown is convinced the money will come. Among the organization’s long-term goals is obtaining a permanent space, “where young ladies can feel what a home is supposed to feel like.”
This article originally appeared in the Septermber 2009 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.