11/20/2013 at 10:00 AM EST
Back in 1987, Oral Lee Brown, an Oakland, Calif., realtor, made a seemingly crazy decision.
She decided to offer 23 first-grade children at Brookfield Elementary School a full-ride to college with no realistic expectations that they would even graduate from high school.
In a school district with a 54 percent high school graduation rate, Browns' kids are beating the odds. Out of that first group of 23, 19 graduated from high school and enrolled in college.
"They didn't want to fail me," she says of their success. "I believe love can turn anything around."
Brown, 68, later established the Oral Lee Brown Foundation
. To date 90 to 95 percent of her classes have graduated, with around 150 kids going to college.
"I don’t have a magic wand," she says. "It is hard work, determination and love. I can't allow mine to fail."
Michael Tatmon, 32, is one of her grateful kids from that first class.
"Ms. Brown was always in my corner," says Tatmon, who graduated from Benedictine College
in Atchison, Kan., with a degree in criminal justice in 2007 and a BA in criminology. "I appreciate her guidance, her wisdom. She taught us you can make it out of the hood."
She was also there for them on a personal level, he says.
"She was like a mother," says Tatmon, who recently started his own clothing, marketing and promotion company. "Out of my family members, I can say I'm one of the few who have never been in jail. That's a result of Ms. Brown in my life."
It all began when a young girl asked Brown for a quarter outside of a grocery store. Instead, she offered to take her inside and buy her something. Expecting her to pick out candy, the girl bought bread, bologna and other sandwich supplies.
Brown kept returning to the store to look for her. Then she decided to try the local elementary school. Three girls were absent from the two first-grade classes that day.
"The principal said, 'I'll give you a call when all the kids are there,'" Brown recalls. "So I get a phone call that all students are here today and I went through thinking I'd finally see her."
"So I just blurted out, 'Can I adopt one of the classes?'" she says. "'Give me the class you don't think will make it.'"
Brown also started Saturday school for the children and is trying to raise money to start a boarding school that will be a safe haven for these children, housing about 480 students.
"With the boarding school, my kids will be safe, with no bullets coming into their dorm," she says.
LaTosha Hunter, 32, who received a bachelor of arts degree in accounting from Alcorn State University
in Lorman, Miss., says she wouldn't be the person she is today without Brown.
"Everyone has a purpose in life," she says. "And her purpose was that we had a better life."
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