By Cassandra J. Sproles
He was falling in too deep.
School—especially a middle school—should’ve been a safe place where Danny wouldn’t have to worry about drugs or violence or gangs. But there he was, a fifth-grader being heavily recruited by one of the world’s most dangerous gangs, and he didn’t know how to get out.
The Rampart community in Los Angeles is filled with stories like Danny’s—kids who have no place to go after school so they spend their time on the streets, falling in with the wrong crowd.
Fortunately, Danny had a lifeline.
Tony Brown (’00) and his staff at Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA) afterschool program know these stories all too well, and they have dedicated their lives to giving these historically underserved kids and their families every opportunity to stay out of trouble and be successful.
Brown himself lost two brothers to the scourge of drugs. One of his brothers came to visit HOLA shortly before he passed away, leaving Brown with words he would never forget.
“He was admiring the kids’ artwork all over the walls, and he said to me, ‘I wish I would’ve had a place like this when I was a kid,’” Brown says.
Brown always knew HOLA was doing good work but his brother’s words gave him an even greater determination to help the kids before they found themselves in too deep with no way out.
HOLA and Beyond
HOLA began in 1989 in a dilapidated church gym, where founder Mitchel Moore and some boys from the community began playing basketball after school. It was a safe place away from the violent streets.
Just three years later, Brown became one of HOLA’s first employees, and the children were receiving help with homework and instruction in art, music, and dance—all for free.
Brown loved working with the kids at HOLA but decided to take on teaching full time at a school in Brentwood, California. During this time, the head of his school was recruited to Webb School in Knoxville, and he asked Brown to come with him.
Any hesitation Brown may have had about uprooting his life and moving more than 2,000 miles slipped away when he saw the opportunity to fulfill his dream of pursuing a master’s degree.
While teaching physical education, coaching football and basketball, and running Camp Webb, Brown took classes in sport management at UT.
He says hands-on experiences, like codirecting the TSSAA basketball tournament in Thompson-Boling Arena and engaging corporations for sponsorships, helped prepare him for the rest of his career.
“UT gave me opportunities and experiences that would have been hard to get anywhere else,” Brown says. “It’s so unique to have that kind of access.”
He returned to California with hopes of working for the LA Lakers basketball team, while fielding offers from the LA Clippers and Los Angeles Sparks. Eventually, Brown went to work for Fox Sports. It was a great job that paid well, but a visit to his old stomping grounds in Rampart set him on a different, yet familiar, path.
HOLA had moved and grown since Brown had left but one thing was the same—the bright, smiling faces of the children who were there to learn and make something more of themselves.
“Four days later I gave my resignation at Fox,” Brown says. “I saw what I was going to be able to do with all that I had learned at UT, and now I had business experience, too.”
He was right, and the impact for the kids has been life changing.
Brown returned to HOLA in 2003 as director of development, raising funds for the program that was now serving 1,200 kids with a staff of seventeen and 100 volunteers.
It wasn’t long before he noticed that the reading skills of a lot of the teenaged kids weren’t at the level they should be, and he approached the director about strengthening the academic program, one that Brown envisioned as a private school experience.
“I craved wanting to do it the right way for the kids,” says Brown.
The opportunity for extra classes not only helped raise school grades, kept kids off of the streets, and helped with graduation rates, it also set more of them on the right course for higher education.
In 2007, Brown took on the mantle of executive director and helped HOLA secure a grant of $1 million to invest in Lafayette Park—a place that no one wanted to go into. A unique partnership with the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks and funding from the Everychild Foundation culminated in a LEED-certified “green” community center that boasts a skate plaza, soccer field, and gymnasium. The renovated building and its programs allow HOLA to serve twice the number of people with four times the amount of programming.
With three additional buildings, HOLA is currently serving 2,400 students, who are able to take academic classes as well as enrichment classes like visual arts, film and TV, and performing arts.
The music program has made it possible for 200 HOLA students to take part in Youth Orchestra LA (YOLA)—a partnership with the LA Philharmonic, providing instrumental and orchestral education.
Brown tells the story of a boy whose mother begged for his admission to the music program because he was falling in with a bad crowd. He was too old for formal admission to the program, but was given the opportunity to become a volunteer peer mentor
He put everything he had into the role, and it made him feel valued and part of something special. And that’s when he began to excel.
“We put a clarinet in his hands, got him into a nice performing arts high school, and he was invited to travel to London with the LA Philharmonic,” Brown says.
The young man now wants to go to college to study psychology, minor in music, and work for an organization like HOLA.
“All of the kids are working hard to pull themselves and their families out of poverty,” Brown says proudly. “They’re my locomotive kids.”
And all of the hard work shows.
Despite the 50 percent graduation rate in the Rampart district, 100 percent of HOLA’s kids have graduated from high school in the last three years and most are in college. There are currently more than 200 HOLA alumni attending colleges and universities around the nation, including Brown University, Wellesley College, Barnard College, University of California-Los Angeles, and Columbia University.
Most of these students are the first in their families to go to college, and, over the past five years, HOLA has awarded more than one million dollars in multi-year scholarships to help them along the way.
But the association with HOLA doesn’t end with graduation. A strong alumni program brings in extra volunteers and, perhaps most importantly, people who have sat in the same chairs and been in the same situations as the kids they are now helping.
The Sky is the Limit
HOLA’s growth and success were rewarded with a commendation from the governor in 2010. Brown, a member of the CEHHS Dean’s Advisory Board, has been recognized for his efforts by Loyola Marymount (his undergrad alma mater), Bank of America, KTLA, and the Los Angeles Business Journal.
However, for Brown, it’s all about keeping the kids off the streets and helping them get an education—acts of kindness and caring that have made a difference for the kids at HOLA and may have done the same for his late brothers.
“UT taught me that you can do a lot with a good education,” he says. “The sky is the limit. I just wish that every kid would have the opportunity to go to a university like UT to open their mind and give them a better chance at life.”
What a wonderful program, I grew up in Echo Park and wish there had been a program like this. These children are our future and now they have a real chance at life!
Tony, I am so proud of you. We don’t see enough of you but love you and always wish you the very best. I would love to help support, let me know.