Thursday, June 28, 2007

Despite tragedy, Laurel siblings become college graduates

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Bryan Haynes⁄The Gazette
Gail Brown (right) with her friend Aimee Falekulo, both of Laurel, rejoice after walking across the stage at the College Bound graduation ceremonies at Capitol College in Laurel.
In an auditorium filled with youth that have overcome obstacles, few at First Generation College Bound’s (FGCB) high school and college graduation ceremony June 20 had been through as much in the last two years as the Brown siblings.

Gavin Brown, 24, an alumnus of the Laurel-based non-profit program and the night’s guest speaker, and Gail Brown, 22, among the 16 college graduates being honored, within the last two years lost two sisters and a niece.

Eight months pregnant, 24-year-old Toni Brown, who was diabetic, in May 2005 fell into a coma and died after her blood sugar became too low when she was home alone. Her child could not be saved.

Last December, Lisa Brown, 22, and her 9-month-old daughter were fatally shot in their South Laurel apartment. As of late last week, the case was unsolved.

‘‘I wanted to give up so many times,” said Gail Brown, who graduated from Bowie State University this spring with a bachelor’s degree in pedagogy with a concentration in psychology. ‘‘I actually thought about quitting college and just moving far away.”

Like other students, Gail Brown who plans to pursue a master’s degree in human services administration at the University of Baltimore, said the FGCB network was like a second family to help push her through difficult times.

‘‘It’s probably one of the reasons I got through that devastating time in December,” she said. The day her sister was murdered, Gail Brown said Joe Fisher, FGCB’s founder and CEO, visited her home and Fisher’s wife, Pat, counseled her by phone and e-mail in the days and weeks that followed.

Gavin Brown, a youth minister at Cornerstone Church in Bowie, told graduates to make the most of their opportunities.

‘‘I’ve found out that life is short,” he said. ‘‘Because it is short, you have to find out what are the right things to do when you’re here.”

FGCB, in its 17th year, runs homework clubs, SAT prep courses and college visits for low- to moderate-income students whose parents have not achieved at least a bachelor’s degree and steers them through the college application and financial aid processes. The non-profit reaches out to children as young as six through its homework club in Laurel’s Kimberly Gardens and Cherry Branch communities.

Sixty-eight college-bound Laurel and Potomac high school graduates and 16 college graduates were honored at the June 20 ceremony at Capitol College in Laurel. Some of their parents worked two or even three jobs to put food on the table. Others were evicted from their homes and stayed in shelters when their families could not make rent.

Courtney Young of Potomac High School’s class of 2007 said Fisher, who himself was the first in his family to graduate college, called her three times a week to prod her about financial aid application deadlines or just to offer an encouraging word.

‘‘With that kind of coaching, one could never fail,” she said.

Added Earl Harper of Laurel High School’s class of 2007:

‘‘They just treat us as if we were one of there’s.”

E-mail Steve Earley at