In the six years since Van Brooks founded SAFE Alternative Foundation for Education, a free education-centered nonprofit for kids in the underserved West Baltimore neighborhood where he grew up, he has learned never to take anything for granted. As an example, he shares the story of a trip he led to Loyola Blakefield High School just outside Baltimore. In 2004 Brooks, then a junior, sustained a C5-6 injury playing football for Loyola Blakefield. Over a decade later, he was introducing his alma mater’s picturesque campus to a group of kids from SAFE. One of the kids, seeing the stark contrast between the private school’s state-of-the art facilities and the two-story public school they attended, told Brooks he wanted to go to college there.
“I told him, ‘You can’t go to college here because it’s a high school and middle school.’ It completely blew his mind. His reaction was, ‘Then I want to go to high school here,’” Brooks says. With the help of Brooks and SAFE, that student, Corey Bowden, went from knowing nothing about private school to being accepted into three private schools.
Bowden calls Brooks his role model. “I can go to him with any problem I have because I know he’ll have the answer I need. He is 100 percent supportive of wherever [I’m going]. I really needed that because I don’t have a father in my life. Him stepping up and doing that for me — I really appreciate it.”
Now a freshman at private Cristo Rey High School, Bowden credits SAFE with changing his life. “SAFE has exposed me to a lot that I didn’t know,” he says. “SAFE provided the exposure that I needed to get through the world. Kids don’t have a lot of exposure to things not in front of them. Van did that for me.”
In the last five years, SAFE has served over 100 students, created numerous programs to serve the community, and it even opened its own youth center. Brooks’ work has not gone unnoticed. He has received numerous awards, including one from President Obama, as well as the adulation of his community.
Brooks humbly plays down his role. “One person can’t do it all, and I definitely didn’t do it all,” he says.
Choosing to Deal
Imagining a world without SAFE might be difficult for Brooks now, but on the fall 2004 night when he injured his neck, a future in community service was not even in his mind. “When it first happened, I was devastated because my dream was to be a NFL player. I was on my way to being a collegiate athlete,” he says. “I didn’t really have a backup plan.”
Still unsure of his next step, Brooks resolved to keep moving forward. “I realized I had two choices. One was to deal with it. One was to not. I chose to deal with it.”
With the support of his family and friends, and the stubborn persistence that made him a good football player, he made steady progress in rehab while graduating from Loyola Blakefield on time. Brooks went on to get a degree in communications from Townsend University.
With a few more years under his belt and his education progressing, he finally understood the advice his father had been giving him all along. “My father used to always tell me, ‘Never put all your eggs in one basket.’ He wanted me to focus on my education, not entirely on football. He knew I was a good athlete, but he encouraged me to hit the books.”
Brooks developed a deeper appreciation of the lengths his parents had gone to in order to ensure he got the best education possible. The youngest of five siblings, Brooks was the only one in his family to attend private school. “They sacrificed a ton to provide for me and my siblings and give us things that they didn’t have growing up, which is why I ended up in private school and why they kept me signed up for organized sports,” he says.
Still, there was no escaping the police sirens, helicopters and gunshots that were a part of life in his neighborhood. Parts of HBO’s documentary about the 2015 death of Freddie Gray and the ensuing riots were actually filmed in his backyard — but thanks in part to his parents, Brooks never lived in fear.
“I was a little sheltered from violence. I was aware of it, but I was always kept active with sports and other extracurricular activities, and I didn’t have any free time to explore any of that,” says Brooks. “I can’t quite say the same for some of my friends. Some of us took different paths.”
Instead of bemoaning his new reality, Brooks focused on the advantages his hard work and his parents’ sacrifices had given him. “I realized my education could never be taken away, no matter my physical mobility. The things that I was exposed to could never be taken away.”
The Great Equalizer
As Brooks contemplated the importance of education and the needs of his community, he got his “marching orders” in a dream. “I woke up from a dream and started a nonprofit,” he says. “I had no clue what it was going to do or how I was going to make it work, but I thought there was a purpose. It was God’s way of telling me this is what he had planned for my life.”
Brooks wanted to do for the kids of his West Baltimore neighborhood what his parents had done for him — broaden their norms and inspire the students to think big through education and exposure. “I had a wide variety of free programs I could take advantage of, but that’s not the same for all of these kids,” says Brooks. “The organizations I had exposure to have closed up, or now charge. Parents have to weigh whether they pay for food or for an after-school program.”
Brooks envisioned SAFE as a way to take that burden off parents, provide a safe place for kids to be kids and give them the educational resources they need to succeed. “They go to public schools and are doing the best they can, but it doesn’t add up. I wanted to bring a private school education to after-school. I wanted to bring the programs and resources I had,” he says. “I believe the key to success is through an education. I believe the great equalizer is through an education. Once you get a good education, you can compete with the best of people in the world. For the kids who come to SAFE, it’s harder to get to that level,” he says.
Brooks made his dream a reality by reaching out to similar nonprofit organizations, sharing his vision through social media, making connections through those networks and cold calls, creating a business plan, finding mentors, and sacrificing both sleep and social time.
After six to eight months of his research, outreach and networking, Brooks was able to get SAFE and one after-school program started for sixth to eighth grade middle school students. “The whole mission behind SAFE was to teach kids from my community, which is an undeserved community, the importance of having an education and a backup plan, and learning how to deal with adversity along that path to success. Life is going to happen. It may not be in the form of an injury, but no matter who you are, you are going to go through some sort of adversity. You must stay the course in order to attain the success.”
Since its 2012 launch, SAFE has helped several students, like Bowden, get accepted into private schools and has helped improve the lives of many of the students and their families.
“The things these kids see and go through seem normal for them. As an adult who has experienced a lot of things, I know that is not normal,” he says. “We have some single-parent households. For some of the kids that come to us, [the meal we provide] will be the last one they have that night. It may be the last time someone gives them a hug or asks them if they’re OK until they come back to us the next day. That may be the last time they’re allowed to be a kid, knowing as soon as they step in their door, they have to become an adult and take care of their siblings or themselves. That’s normal to them.”
Theodore, a freshman at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, is one of the many success stories. He attended SAFE for two years and credits Brooks for helping him reach his potential. “Van helped me personally,” says Theodore. “I used to stay outside and go to the basketball court … not do anything dealing with education after school. He told me about the center. I started coming and learning and doing more.”
Theodore appreciates the doors SAFE helped him open. “[Private school] will benefit me in the future and help me be ready to interview or run a business and be professional.”
Brooks’ nonprofit focuses on providing educational opportunities and exposing his students to the world beyond their community. A typical day at the youth center begins at 3 p.m. and lasts until 6 or 7 p.m. During that time, there’s a specific schedule for homework, free time, the program of the day and dinner. The programs take what the kids are learning in school and teach those topics in a hands-on way.
“Kids think they only need to know dollars and cents, a little multiplication here and there — they don’t think fractions are important,” says Brooks. “We teach the kids in a fun way, and why it’s important, with a baking class.”
A lesson on pancakes asks the kids to write down the ingredient measurements and directions and then made their own pancakes. According to Brooks, “They were some of the best-looking pancakes I’ve ever seen, but they tasted absolutely horrible. Someone didn’t do the math right. When we troubleshot it, we found the issue came back to the math and the fractions.”
SAFE also exposes the students to potential careers, showing them there’s plenty out there to choose from and strive to be. “A lot of the kids want to be an entertainer or athlete. We like to focus on sports they may not know about, like fencing. Many of them have never even heard of it before this. And now they’ve tried it. We expose them to something totally different … something that could be another career path,” Brooks says.
In 2017, SAFE’s vocational exposure focused on the medical and construction fields. Hospital visits allowed the kids to see various functions and healthcare pathways. And they got to dig into several construction specialties, too, including concrete, masonry, drywall and flooring.
A Strong Vision
Brooks’ commitment and the impact of SAFE on his community have earned some high-level attention. He received the President’s Volunteer Service Award from President Obama. In October 2017, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan named Brooks the Director of the Governor’s Office of Service and Volunteerism. The Office on Service and Volunteerism oversees $4.2 million in AmeriCorps grants from the Corporation for National and Community Service.
“Brooks’ story is one of perseverance through great personal adversity. His background in youth outreach, as well as his commitment to public service, is a tremendous asset in his work to bring communities together to help others,” says Hogan. “Our administration is fortunate to have someone with Van’s passion and experience leading the Governor’s Office of Service and Volunteerism.”
In celebration of Black History Month, Brooks is using this role to introduce the Black History Month Community Leaders Awards, recognizing Maryland-based, African American-founded organizations that provide volunteer service to improve local communities. Also, he has been working with the Banneker-Douglass Museum — Maryland’s official museum of African American heritage — to encourage Marylanders to visit this free museum and inspire them to continue on the work of their predecessors.
Brooks still oversees SAFE but isn’t as involved in the day-to-day operations as he had been for the last few years. He reflects on the transition and the future of the foundation. “I knew I wanted the foundation to be much bigger than me. To achieve that status, I knew at some point I would have to no longer be a full part of it and to step away.”
The hectic schedule, balancing of roles and living his life on wheels haven’t slowed Brooks down or let him lose sight of what really matters.
“The kids keep me going. This is the purpose of my life. That is enough motivation,” he says. “We’re helping kids that so many people count out. Having these kids get into private schools, bring in straight As, and feel more confident in themselves is one of the most fulfilling things one could ever ask for.”
Fueled by the people he serves, and dedicated to philanthropic efforts, Brooks’ drive and vision carry him through the ups, downs and in-betweens—and ultimately into the future.
“Van’s message is that whatever you want to do, you can do. There’s no one that gets that message and inspiration out there better than he does,” says Steve McAdams, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Community Initiatives. “And his vison is always forward-looking. It’s always about where we need to go and what we need to do.”
With his focus and determination, Brooks has made an impact in his immediate Baltimore community and now in the greater state of Maryland. The results have been life-changing for himself and those he serves.
“My life forced me to grow up very fast. But looking where I’m at now, it was part of the process. I’m part of something that’s larger than myself,” he says.