A star football player at Loyola Blakefield High School, Van Brooks was just 16 when he broke his neck during a game and woke up at Shock Trauma, paralyzed from the neck down.
Brooks fell into a depression. Not only was he unable to care for himself, or even walk, he was now cut off from the thing he loved most in the world: football.
“Growing up, my dad always said, ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. You need to prepare for the what if.’ And then the ‘what if’ happened to me,” he said. “The only thing I had to fall back on was my education. School was the only thing I could do to obtain the success that I wanted. I graduated from high school on time despite being told that I wouldn’t be able to.”
Even though he was told he would never walk again, Brooks took a few steps two months after graduating from college in June 2012.
“Two days after that, I woke up and said I wanted to start a nonprofit, to share my story with others and help as many kids as possible,” says Brooks, who is now 26.
From there, Safe Alternative Foundation for Education (SAFE) was born. SAFE works with youth from the Franklin Square neighborhood where Brooks grew up, and still resides. The program helps to promote education and life skills, as well as the tools to become college graduates and future leaders. Brooks and volunteers also stress the importance of having “a backup plan for life.”
One of the ways Brooks attracts students to the program is through his first love: football.
“Sports is a platform everybody can understand,” he says. “I know how sports affected my life, as far as learning discipline and leadership, and the understanding that you can’t win a game by yourself. You need people. You have to depend on people.”
SAFE runs a free flag football league called “Yards for Success” for 25 middle school children from Franklin Square/Poppleton. The students play 7-on-7 games against neighborhood police officers, firefighters and community leaders to build relationships with and instill a sense of trust in authority figures.
“In the city and this community a lot of kids grow up being taught that you don’t associate with police officers. Police officers are bad,” Brooks says. “We want them to know that not all police officers are the way they are depicted in the nightly news and in popular culture.”
SAFE also brings in guest speakers after school, to discuss topics such as financial literacy, culinary arts, or robotics, as examples. One guest speaker, a player for the Ravens, thrilled the group when he came and spoke to them about the importance of education.
Already the program has seen successes, including increasing school attendance among program participants, Brooks says at least one principal has told him.
With his fellowship, Brooks will be able to expand SAFE to enroll more students, and include more volunteers and programming.
“I want the kids who are struggling in school. I want the kids who may not come to school as much as they should,” Brooks says. “Some kids never get out of this community. I know because I’m from this community. I know what these kids are facing. But I also know their potential. Just for them to see me—someone who lives in their same community—what I’ve experienced, it gives them hope.”
Brooks will receive additional support from the Open Society Foundations’ Campaign for Black Male Achievement, a strategy to address the exclusion of black men and boys from economic, social, educational and political life in the United States. The BMA Fellowship is dedicated to improving the life outcomes of black men and boys and is the first fellowship program of its kind.