After suffering a life-altering injury as a teenager, Van Brooks, center, created the Safe Alternative Foundation for Education to equip youth with the skills they need to prosper, regardless of where life takes them. (Courtesy of Safe Alternative Foundation for Education)

By Jessica Dortch
AFRO News Editor

Some things just don’t go as planned and other things, like a global pandemic, are out of your control. In either case, it is important to have a backup plan for the “what ifs” in life. Van Brooks, founder of Safe Alternative Foundation for Education, knows all too well about having to make unexpected adjustments, and he’s on a mission to make sure that the next generation is prepared for whatever lies ahead.

Brooks told the AFRO that he felt the notion to start a nonprofit in a dream. Thus, the Safe Alternative Foundation for Education (SAFE) was created “to share my story and to help students from my community understand the importance of having an education, but not only having an education, having a backup plan for life.” 

The foundation provides kids ages 11 to 14, with unique learning experiences that help them excel academically while finding their passion, because Brooks believes that it is important to have options. 

Seventeen years ago, Brooks, a high school football star athlete, sustained an injury on the field that left him paralyzed. “Laying in the hospital, I realized if I was going to have any kind of success, it would come through my education. No matter what my physical abilities were, as long as I was able to talk, I would be able to articulate what I need and I’ll be able to become successful. My education and the things I’m exposed to are two things that can never be taken away,” he said.  

Not only does SAFE empower kids, with plans of expanding the program’s reach to young adults, but they also combat stereotypes. With the foundation’s latest hiring of Xavier Hunt as lead educator and program coordinator, the foundation now has three Black men in its executive leadership positions. “…A positive Black male teacher will be able to connect with and motivate most Black male students in ways that others cannot. This is especially true during the K-12 progression. Not only does this type of representation make the idea of higher education attainable for the students, it exposes them to another perspective within the field of education,” Hunt explained. 

Javon Roye, SAFE’s marketing specialist, explained that representation in the classroom matters because for most students, teachers are their most impactful role models. This is especially important for “majority minority” cities like Baltimore. “If they see teachers who resemble them in appearance or background, they are more likely to grasp the idea that they, too, can succeed. It is in the classroom where dreaming starts, and the teacher can either negatively or positively affect those dreams.”

Brooks spoke with the AFRO about what makes his organization so impactful to youth in Baltimore City. 

AFRO: How has your organization impacted the community and the city of Baltimore? 

Van Brooks: Growing up in the city, the center is the community where I live. I know the ins and outs of this community. What I realize a lot of times is students from underserved communities are paralyzed. They aren’t parylzed physically, but they are paralyzed at times mentally and educationally. I truly believe the key to any success is education and if you’re not getting the proper education, then what level of success will you really obtain? The exposure piece is so important because if you don’t know something exists you can never strive for it. 

When you are exposed to certain things you can sit back when you become of age and you can say “this isn’t right.” You can begin to point out the things that are wrong and the things that you want to strive for because you know they exist. What I believe we bring to the city and the community is those things. It’s bringing a private school education after school, and bringing those same resources that private and more affluent schools have to our community. Close the educational gap and the experience gap. Providing that exposure that’s needed for our kids to truly dream and say “I want to become that,” and having a network of representation. People who come from where we come from, people that look at us, having that and those people in front of our students are having a  huge impact. It’s a long term approach, but what we’ve gotten there we truly see the impact. 

AFRO: Speak to the importance of having a backup plan and staying open to different opportunities?

VB: We all know life is going to happen, and there’s going to be things out of our control. We can have all the plans in the world, but life is going to do what it’s going to do and we have to adjust. For me, I wanted to be an athlete and if that didn’t work out, I wanted to be a Navy Seal. So because I suffered a physical injury, I had to completely change everything. However, for some people who may not go to those things, they just might have to find an alternate route to get to where they ultimately want to be. I may not physically be able to play football, but if I still wanted to be around the game, I could figure out how to do so. Being exposed to these other options that are available either within the career that you dream of or having a different plan that connects to that career. 

AFRO: In what other ways does SAFE empower the youth?

VB: Leadership and self-advocacy are huge ones for us. Back when the uprisings happened, we met with 150 middle school students and we just listened to them. One of the things that came out of it was that they felt that adults never listen to them. When we actually sit down and allow our kids to talk to us, they are brilliant but at times they don’t have the leadership skills or the space to articulate themselves and truly express what they are feeling. We provide them with the space to practice those things. Those are life skills.   

The Safe Alternative Foundation for Education is located in the Franklin Square community of West Baltimore. For more information, visit www.safealternative.org and follow them on Facebook and Instagram @safealternative and Twitter @safe_alt_inc.

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