FROM HOMELESS TO HOPEFUL: Ferris State student starts nonprofit dedicated to helping less fortunate

Byron Brooks, a senior in Ferris State University’s music and entertainment business program, is pictured Tuesday on campus. Last year, founded a nonprofit organization, From the Hood, For the Hood. (Pioneer photo/Tim Rath)

BIG RAPIDS — The deadly threats faced by area homeless men and women; including dehydration, frostbite and hypothermia, are well known to Ferris State University student Byron Brooks.

Brooks, a senior in FSU’s music and entertainment business program, was homeless himself for 1 1/2 years, starting shortly after he turned 18. Now, in addition to pursuing a bachelor’s degree, Brooks, 23, is working to help the homeless stay safe this winter and throughout the year as well, with the nonprofit organization he founded, From the Hood, For the Hood.

“There are homeless in almost every community. You might not see them every day — some might be in the shelter, some might be hiding out — and this is the worst time of the year for them,” Brooks said. “No matter your community’s economic well-being, they are there, which means this is an issue everyone in society can relate to on some level.”

Currently, Brooks is collecting “winter survival kits” — duffel bags filled with a weatherproof sleeping bag, hats, gloves, scarves, nonperishable snacks and other items — for the homeless seeking shelter at Our Brother’s Keeper in Big Rapids and Mel Trotter Ministries in Grand Rapids. In recent weeks, he’s brought pizzas over to the shelter in Big Rapids, and purchased winter boots for people at Mel Trotter.

In addition, since starting the nonprofit in June, Brooks has collected bottled water for those affected by the Flint water crisis, and worked in collaboration with the Big Rapids nonprofit Angels of Action to pack bookbags full of nutritious food for local students whose families cannot otherwise afford it.

“I don’t know how (Brooks) fits it all in his schedule,” said Angels of Action director Joni Thompson. “He’s a true example of leadership and servantship — someone who has not only overcome every obstacle that has ever been in his way, but emerged from it with a sense of bettering the community he came from, so others don’t have to go through that.”

According to Brooks, the mission of From the Hood, For the Hood, is “empowering, engaging and developing young people and communities that are often overlooked, while also being a training catalyst for social justice and the fight against homelessness.”

His ultimate goal is to merge his interest in the music industry with his philanthropic efforts; creating a record label, based in his hometown of Detroit, whose sales will benefit charitable organizations in low-income neighborhoods.

Brooks’ inspiration came from his own difficult experiences, growing up on Detroit’s west side. With his mother in prison for a portion of his childhood and his father never being in the picture, Brooks said, he was largely raised by great-grandparents and occasionally fell victim to pressures of the streets. He flunked the 9th and 10th grades, but eventually got his act together, took extra coursework and graduated on-time, with the rest of his class.

Brooks even made right with his mother and moved back into her house. But after high school, he said, she gave him an ultimatum: get a factory job and help contribute financially to the household, or move out — even if it meant becoming homeless.

“I felt like going to college was the best way for me to make something of myself, and that I’d never do anything at that factory,” Brooks said. “It was hard being homeless, but I knew, I could pity myself and stay in that situation, or I could work toward getting out of that situation.”

Brooks chose the latter option. He enrolled at Henry Ford College, in Dearborn, and went to class by day. At night, he worked a series of part-time jobs to save cash and stay off of the streets. He said he often slept in abandoned houses, bus stops and parks.

“Sometimes, I’d walk through the city until it was time for class,” Brooks said. “I did have a lot of support from friends, family and faculty at the school, though. I’d get cash and food, and that would help sustain me for a little while.”

Brooks later saved up enough money to buy a car, and with help from members of the church he belonged to, moved into an apartment.

All the while, Brooks excelled in school. He maintained a 3.5 GPA and was elected student body president. When he sought a transfer, he was accepted by a number of prestigious universities; including Harvard, Columbia and Howard, but chose FSU for its music program.

Now in a new city, with a stable living situation and a plan for the future, Brooks hopes to help those less fortunate than himself. He’s busier than he’s ever been, but he says the effort is worth it.

“The group is really just me. Some friends and family help out on certain causes, but the bulk of the work is all on me — so it is a lot of work,” Brooks said with a laugh. “I know it’s important, though. I feel every college student should be able to balance their classes and giving back, because service is a part of academia.”

Those who are seeking to contribute to the From the Hood, For the Hood duffel bag drive can contribute through the mobile payment service Cash App, the nonprofit donation and church giving app Givelify, or by calling Brooks at (313) 505-2313.

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Posted by Tim Rath

Tim is the Pioneer's associate editor. He also coordinates the Family & Friends, Religion and Veterans pages. He can be reached by phone at (231) 592-8386 or by e-mail at trath@pioneergroup.com.

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