Too often, we dismiss problems as happening to other people in other places. We can’t get our heads around a solution, so we ignore the issue and move on, or acknowledge it and feel helpless.
For UT alum Tony Brown (’00), saving our at-risk youth isn’t a problem for others. And the solution isn’t either.
As executive director of Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA) afterschool program, Brown spends his time providing a safe space in an area of the city that’s filled with stories of kids turning to drugs and violence because there is no alternative.
He does it, in part, because he himself lost two brothers to drugs.
One of Brown’s brothers came to visit HOLA shortly before his death, leaving the UT MBA graduate with words he never would forget. “He said to me, ‘I wish I would’ve had a place like this when I was a kid,’’’ Brown says.
The California native was one of HOLA’s first employees in 1992. Set in a dilapidated church gym, the program started with basketball, homework assistance, and instruction in art, music, and dance, all for free.
Brown left HOLA to teach full time in Brentwood, California, and then in Knoxville, where he earned his MBA from UT. It was during this time as a coach, teacher, volunteer, and student that he amassed the skills in fundraising, community outreach, and management that would prove invaluable in his current role.
“UT gave me opportunities and experiences that would have been hard to get anywhere else,” Brown stated.
He returned to LA to work for Fox Sports, but one visit to his former job was all it took to change his path. “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 started as director of development in 2003, and within four years was named executive director. He helped HOLA secure a grant for $1 million to invest in a community center that boasts a skate plaza, soccer field, and gymnasium. The renovation allows HOLA to serve 2,400 kids with four times as much programming as before.
All of the hard work shows. In a district with a 50 percent graduation rate, 100 percent of HOLA’s kids have graduated from high school in the past three years, with most pursuing higher education. Many of these are the first in their families to go to college, and over the past five years HOLA has awarded more than a million dollars in scholarships to help.
In 2017, Brown received a $200,000 leadership award from the James Irvine Foundation. He says the money will go a long way toward providing kids with what they so often lack: opportunity.
For this Volunteer, following his heart has made all the difference.