Staff photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press Brazil Harris, 11, looks at her mother, Lora, while at Cold Stone Creamery in downtown Chattanooga. Brazil and other graduating fifth graders from Brown Academy have been given $20 in college savings by state Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga. The money cannot be used for anything but college tuition.
On the day Brazil Harris graduated from fifth grade, a woman she'd never met opened a college savings account for her.
The stranger took $20 of her own money and put it in an account with Brazil's name at a local credit union. The rising sixth-grader can't touch the money until she graduates from high school, and it can be used only to pay for some form of postsecondary education.
In fact, the woman did the same for all of Brazil's classmates, and has pledged to open accounts for all the students who graduate from her namesake school, Brown Academy.
Tennessee House Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, said she got the savings account idea from a financial literacy game at Brown in which students earn "Brown Bucks" for good behavior and grades and buy trinkets in the school store.
She's still working out the details of the pilot program, and said she hopes to start a similar program at her own alma mater, Orchard Knob Elementary.
"I wanted to make sure they would carry with them some of the support they'd gotten at Brown Academy," she said. "I wanted to stay connected with them."
Brazil's mom, Lora Harris, remembers getting emotional when the savings accounts were announced during her daughter's graduation.
"Like, wow. Miss Tommie Brown is a sweet and generous lady," Mrs. Harris said.
She and her husband, Christopher, have been saving for the college education of each of their three daughters since the day they were born. Every time Brazil, 11; Jamaica, 9; and India, 7, receive an allowance or birthday money, their parents make them put half of it into their savings account.
The idea of saving is hardly novel in the Harris home, but Mrs. Harris said Rep. Brown's gift is a good reminder for all the parents.
"There are some parents who don't think of (saving for college) until after high school," she said. "Her timing and planning was perfect. We all teared up at the graduation because of the level of generosity."
At 11, Brazil is poised and articulate, but college is still a distant thought.
"Yeah, sure, I want to go to college," she said, looking off in the distance for a moment. "That'd be fine with me, yeah."
The Rev. Ann Jones-Pierre, manager of the Church Koinonia Federal Credit Union, where the savings accounts reside, said she and Rep. Brown are looking to add money to the accounts from other donors as well.
She believes that the accounts also will encourage the students to get into the habit of saving money.
"I'm just extremely excited about it," she said. "It brings a new level of understanding to the need for postsecondary education and for financial literacy.
"For something like this to happen in Chattanooga and with the commitment of (Rep.) Brown with her own personal funds is outstanding."
Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...