Van Brooks grew up in West Baltimore, but quickly realized he had opportunities that many of his peers couldn’t even dream of.
“Growing up in the community, but going to private schools all my life I saw the difference in the education I was receiving and the education that my friends were receiving,” Brooks said.
Brooks, 28, attended Loyola Blakefield. He had an incredible passion for football. During high school, he began to realize the doors that football could open. But just one play in his junior year would alter his life, shaping his future.
On September 25, 2004, Brooks was attempting to make a tackle when he broke his neck. His injury initially paralyzed him from the neck down. He was unable to talk, eat or feel. Through hard work, dedication and countless hours of physical therapy, Brooks regained his speech and movement from the waist up.
Eight years after his injury on September 27, 2012, Brooks accomplished another goal: being able to walk again.
He graduated from Loyola Blakefield and Towson University with a bachelor of science in communication. He immediately began his next journey, an educational foundation to give kids opportunities that many of his peers did not have.
“When I was injured, there was an event for me and I was told approximately 1,300 people came. I don’t know 1,300 people and I’m sure that a lot of the people who came didn’t know who I was, they just wanted to support,” Brooks said. “So when thinking about all of the support that I received, it was only right that I gave back in some way and this was my way of doing it. In a sense it’s just paying it forward.”
Brooks started S.A.F.E. in October of 2015. The Safe Alternative Foundation for Education, Inc. is a non-profit foundation that is completely free of charge to its students. Community support and volunteers make it all possible.
The mission is to extend and enrich the education that Baltimore City youth are receiving. Right after school, about 15 kids, fourth through eighth grade, come to the center.
“When thinking about my foundation of how I could give back and just start by sharing the importance of having an education, I started in my own community,” Brooks said. “And with the resources that I had, it was easy for me to start to bridge the gap between the kids that I work with and the education that they could be receiving and should be receiving.”
The first hour is a mandatory homework hour. After that, he concentrates on STEM – science, technology, engineering and math. One day a week is devoted to robotics, another to computer coding and programming. The kids learn wood shop and crafts and sewing.
The community response has been overwhelming in the first six months.
“The community loves it,” he said. “Anytime we can take kids and give them something positive to do, the community loves it. It’s been a blessing that the community has been so receptive to us and working with us and allowing us to be a major part. They’re supporting everything we do.”
The learning that happens within the four walls for S.A.F.E. is important, but equally important is the lessons they learn outside. In addition to education, Brooks wants to offer exposure.
“Everything that we do revolves around education because we believe that the key to success is through an education,” Brooks said. “With that being said, exposure is big for us. So anywhere that we can take the kids outside of the community to receive exposure, and for them to realize that there are other things offered in the world, in Maryland, in Baltimore City.”
The kids earn field trips through their performance in the classroom. Trips include Towson University basketball games, visits to a horse farm and a day in the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum.
In April, Brooks’ “Yards for Success” program returns for its third year. He gathers middle schoolers to play flag football against the community’s police officers and firefighters. The program is a fun way to build healthy relationships between the community and law enforcement. The kids look forward to it every year.
Being a role model is what he aspires to be to each and every child he helps.
“Being an inspirational person – people say that all the time, I don’t see it that way. Being a role model, is something totally different,” Brooks said.
“I had role models growing up and I had people that I could look to for positivity and I’m just trying to be that person for the kids. If they can look at me and say ‘Coach Van didn’t give up despite everything he’s gone through’ – and they know my story, ‘despite everything he’s gone through, he didn’t give up, he lived in the community, he’s from the community and he’s still able to be successful.’ It gives them hope and it gives them someone that they can see every single day and they can talk to every single day when they need some advice with anything. So it definitely gives them hope to be able to succeed and be successful at whatever it is they chose to.”
He says everything he does is to offer a child a brighter future, one they might not have realized. He wants to educate and expose opportunity, but most of all to foster dreams.
“Adult role models, exposure, education, hands-on experience and just allowing a kid to understand that it’s ok to dream and dreams do come true – this was once a dream for me and here it is,” he said.