Van Brooks' roots in the Towson community are apparent inside the youth center he opened and operates in West Baltimore's Franklin Square community, where he grew up and still lives.
The walls of the center for sixth- to eighth-graders are blue and yellow, the colors of Brooks' high school alma matter, Loyola Blakefield. There's a metal tiger on this desk, an award he received from the college he graduated from, Towson University, for his philanthropic work.
Football was his focus when he was at Loyola, until his junior year, when, on Sept. 25, 2004, a tackle inflicted a life-altering neck injury on Brooks. Despite that injury, which initially paralyzed him from the neck down, he graduated from Loyola on time, in 2006, and then attended Towson University, where he earned a degree in mass communications in 2012.
At age 16, Brooks was initially paralyzed from the neck down, but with hard work his condition has improved. He is still considered a quadriplegic but has partial use of all his limbs and relies on a wheelchair. His story, one of injury and recovery, leading to success off the football field, is one people will listen to, Brooks said, adding that he now is using his story to improve the lives of the children from Franklin Square.
His work focuses on providing academic enrichment for 10 area students in order to get them into private schools, where they will have a better chance of success compared to public schools, Brooks said. Brooks started his own foundation, Safe Alternative Foundation for Education, in 2013 with that goal in mind.
At private schools the students will have opportunities available to them that don't exist in the city, Brooks said. The bonds he made at Loyola, an all-boys Catholic college prep school, were stronger than those he might have made at a co-ed school, he said, adding that those bonds, which are part of his support system, helped him recover from his injury.
Brooks stresses the importance of education and having a "back-up" plan to the students, in case the unexpected happens. He thought football would be his career, until one bad tackle changed that.
Brooks said he prepares the students for a more rigorous academic setting through after-school programs. He also tries to instill confidence in the students.
He has successfully helped one student transfer to a private school, Holy Angels Catholic School, where the student began this fall. That student has adjusted well and is enjoying class, Brooks said.
A second student, 14-year-old Corey Bowden, also is on his way to private school, Brooks said.
In a pink shirt, striped tie, khaki slacks and a navy blazer, Bowden, who also is from Franklin Square, visited Loyola Blakefield, a Catholic college preparatory school in Towson, in October.
Bowden, an eighth-grader at Franklin Square Elementary/Middle School, is one of 10 students from the school who go across the street to the Safe Alternative Foundation For Education Center, also called the SAFE Center, five days a week when school lets out.
"I think Loyola Blakefield will help raise my capability level," said Bowden, who wants to be a lawyer, adding that he has heard great things about Loyola.
Brooks attended private schools his entire life, a decision made by his parents; the difference between the quality of his education and that of his peers attending public school was striking, he said, citing a lack of funding and resources in those schools.
Nearly 100 percent of Loyola students attend college after graduating, a school official said. According to the Baltimore City Schools' 2016 data profile, 41.5 percent of city students are enrolled in college by the fall following graduation.
The connections Brooks made at Loyola also have helped him flourish beyond school. Brooks is a "Don,", referring to the school's mascot. As a graduate of Loyola, Brooks is always welcome back in the school's community, said Bernard Bowers, the schools Director for Diversity and Inclusion. This summer, students from Brooks' program went to Loyola to swim and play tennis.
The SAFE Center also partners with Loyola's Mothers' Club for a buddy program in which students from Loyola visit the SAFE Center, and students from the SAFE Center visit Loyola monthly.
Exposing the children to Loyola is critical for showing them what they can obtain and opens the students' minds to other great possibilities, Bowers said.
Such has been the case with Corey Bowden, Brooks said. "Corey didn't know that there were schools like Loyola."
Brooks first took Bowden on a informal visit to Loyola last year, and from that first trip, Bowden said he wanted to attend the school, Brooks said.
Tuition for Loyola Blakefield is $19,700 for the 2016-17 school year, according to the school's website. The school offers financial aid and scholarships to students who can't afford tuition; 43 percent of the schools' roughly 965 students take advantage of those programs. Brooks said his organization doesn't formally help parents with navigating financial aid and scholarship applications, though his parents plan on meeting with Bowden's parents to help them.
Bowers declined to provide statistics about the socioeconomic diversity of students at Loyola. At Loyola, 12 percent of students are African American, 3.5 percent are Asian and 2.5 percent are Hispanic.
At Franklin Square Elementary/Middle in Baltimore City, more than 95 percent of the school's 387 students qualify for free or reduced meals, as determined by household income. At Franklin Square, 95 percent of students are black, according to state data.
Brooks is a product of what access to educational opportunities can do, he said. Those who know him agree that he is a success. On Oct. 7, Brooks was awarded Towson University's Young Philanthropic Award.
Lance Johnson, president of the Towson University Alumni Association, said Brooks was chosen for the award for his work in the Franklin Square community, and how he has used his disability to encourage students to have a backup plan.
Some people would call the Franklin Square kids "at-risk," Brooks said. "I really don't like that word. I don't think these communities are at-risk or these kids are at-risk."
A better term would be "underserved," he said. "We are underserved in the education that we receive; we are underserved in the resources; we are underserved in the quality of programs that we have, and I can go on and on. That's the gap that I'm trying to fill, is providing those educational opportunities and resources, exposing these kids to things, because that's what shaped me."
"I only had two options, one was to deal with it and make the best of it and the other one was to weep and feel sorry for myself," he said, describing what he faced in the wake of his 2004 injury. "My support system was incredible, so no one would allow me to feel sorry for myself."
"I knew with my physical ability being gone, the only thing I could rely on would be my education," he added. "So that's when I really dove into educating myself, and getting the best education I could."
He began challenging himself, constantly seeking improvement, he said, adding that many people didn't expect him to graduate from Loyola on schedule with the rest of his class in 2006.
The year he graduated from college, he walked again for the first time since the injury. He still uses a wheelchair.
The idea for the SAFE foundation came to him in a dream, he said. "I woke up from a dream, and this is what I knew I needed to be doing," he added. "Everything I've gone through has prepared me for these moments."
Having grown up Franklin Square gave him the insight into what the community needed most, he said. He doesn't have any formal training in education, though he is certified in trauma-informed care, which is important in a community like Franklin Square, he said.
In 2013, using funds from donors and grants, Brooks bought and renovated a building across the street from Franklin Square Elementary and Middle School that had been abandoned for a decade. The renovation took 18 months. State records show the building and property cost $15,000. He declined to name the source of the grants because some contributors wanted to remain anonymous, he said.
The new facility, which Brooks said cost another $15,000 to renovate, opened in October 2015.
When students arrive after school, they work on homework and then participate in a variety of programs focused on science, technology, engineering, art, math, and business.
On a recent Tuesday, the students in Brooks' after-school program split up to work on engineering projects. One group practiced programming a robotic ball to move around an intricate track. Another designed three-dimensional name tags, to be made using a 3D printer.
A third group learned about circuitry by making a faux piano out of wires, a small circuit board and seven glasses of water using a product called "Makey Makey" that allows objects, such as the water, to be connected to a computer by creating electrical circuits. Students tap the surface of the water, which has a wire in it, and an attached computer plays a corresponding note.
Brooks quietly observed and encouraged the students as they worked.
Ciera McAllister, Brooks' cousin who has worked at the center since July, said he is great with the kids. He often acts as a counselor as well as a teacher, talking with kids about problems or issues in their lives.
"Anything he can help them with, he is willing to help," she said.
In September, as part of the Mothers' Club buddy program, students from Loyola Blakefield visited the center to play kickball with the students, along with members of the Baltimore City Fire Department's Engine 36, who frequently visit and volunteer at the center.
During the game, Deputy Chief Shift Commander Karl Zimmerman praised Brooks' work from the sidelines. If Brooks says he is going to do something, such as impacting the lives of children in Franklin Square, he does it, Zimmerman said.
Jen Wright, of Lutherville, was at the kickball game with her son, Ryan, an eighth-grader at Loyola. She said it's important for the Loyola students to see how similar they are to the students from the West Baltimore neighborhood, even though the two groups have different economic backgrounds.
"At the end of the day, everyone wants to get together and play," she said.