On Sept. 25, 2004, Loyola High's Van Brooks suffered a broken neck and was paralyzed when his helmet collided with a knee while making a routine tackle.
That day marked the end of his athletic career but led to a new passion: being a community leader.
"The only thing I could rely on was my education," Brooks said. "Even with all that athletic ability gone, my education is something that couldn't be taken from me."
Now 26, he strives to emphasize the importance of schooling to children.
One way he is doing this is through the organization Safe Alternative Foundation for Education (SAFE), which he started to help others be better prepared for life's deviations. Brooks and SAFE have recently announced Yards for Success, a six-week program that will take place at Franklin Square Elementary/Middle School from Tuesday through May 31.
The program will mix flag football with educational sessions guided toward teaching middle school students essential life lessons. Three times a week, kids will practice and play flag football with local police officers, firefighters and other children.
"I wanted the kids to have healthy relationships with the community leaders," Brooks said. "Keep kids in school, help kids do well in school and want to seek higher education, so it will be an incentive for kids to do well."
When Brooks was growing up, the majority of his athletic coaches were police officers, so he knows the importance of building those healthy relationships at a young age.
"I wanted them to see that police officers aren't bad, and police officers do have the skills needed to be successful in life that they can share with the kids," Brooks said.
Each flag football practice will include an educational session, at which youngsters will learn about topics ranging from bullying to financial literacy. Brooks will teach some of the classes, with State Employees' Credit Union, a corporate sponsor of the program, teaching kids about financial literacy.
Carmen Mirabile, assistant vice president of marketing at SECU, met Brooks at a Towson basketball game and was immediately interested in assisting with the program.
"If he can help open doors to getting the word out about the importance of education, then we're there to support him with the financial support part of it as well," Mirabile said.
The classes on financial literacy are set for April 29 and May 15 and will be directed by Sarah Ryan, a community relations manager from SECU.
The 25 spots for Yards for Success at Franklin Square Elementary/Middle School are already filled, but Brooks says the program will run year-round. He plans to continue to host the program at Franklin Square and expand it to 50 kids next time. He also foresees other schools hosting it in the near future.
Franklin Square Principal Terry Patton said she's ecstatic about the start of Yards for Success.
"We're looking at Common Core, we're looking at the future, we're looking at all the things that must take place in order for a child to be successful," Patton said. "There are many parts that each of us can play, and knowing that Van was bringing about his piece, I thought that maybe that would help to put the puzzle together."
As Brooks helps the youngsters, his recovery from his injury continues. He has come a long way from his initial diagnosis and is gaining more mobility. He's getting around a bit with the help of a walker and is even driving — all while taking time to give to his community.
"I didn't want kids to go through what I went through. I didn't want others in general to go through what I went through," Brooks said. "I just wanted to raise awareness about the importance of an education."
Yards for Success
When: Tuesday, April 21, through Saturday, May 31
Where: Franklin Square Elementary/Middle School cafeteria
More information: safealternative.org