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Ashanti Branch, MEd, is the founder of the Ever ­Forward Club, a California nonprofit dedicated to helping Black and Latino non­traditional students get into college — and with its 93 percent success rate, people around the country are paying attention.

Born and raised in Oakland by a single mother (his father died before he was born), Branch was sent to school in the Bay Area hills as part of his mom’s desire for him to get a stronger education. “There were no corner stores there, so I’d get penny candy after school, package it up in sandwich bags, and sell it — 20 candies for a dollar — to other kids.”

The school principal got wind of Branch’s wheeling and dealing and called in his mother, who demanded he close up shop. “I could never figure out why people were mad. All I ever did was try to turn 15 cents into a dollar — and I was good at it!”

Out of high school, he was admitted to California Polytechnic State University. But after a couple of years working as an engineer, Branch began to feel that something was missing. So he switched careers.

As a first-year teacher in 2004, Branch started the Ever Forward Club. Since then, the club has helped every one of its members graduate high school, and most of them have gone on to college.

Branch is now turning 15 cents into a dollar in the biggest way possible, working with the one thing in life that yields a limitless return on investment — kids.

Redefine creativity: “I always thought ‘creative’ was only if you could draw or paint. Now I realize my mom, who was an educator, was doing all kinds of creative projects — making homemade Play-Doh, putting scents on cotton balls for kids to identify. Today, creativity is behind everything I do. I try to write three pages every morning now. Sometimes I’m just dumping out all the junk in my head. Sometimes I think, This is stupid, I hate it. And sometimes after I’ve gotten a bunch of stuff out of my system, a creative spark is ready to shine through and I’ll catch an idea that I really needed.”

Start seeing other people’s struggles: “I bottled up a whole lot of fear, sadness, and worry as a kid. I didn’t tell anyone about being so afraid. It was a teacher in middle school who said, ‘I know you’re sad your father died. Life doesn’t give you what you want; it gives you what you get, and you have to make the most of it.’ That changed everything. Now when I have a student with problems I can ask him: ‘What’s missing? What are you letting the world see, and not letting it see?’” (For more on this, visit www.100kmasks.com.)

Let kids make some real-world choices: “Growing up, we’d get to pick out a box of cereal once a month when my mom got paid. Once it was gone you were back to corn flakes. It became a meaningful thing: Choose Rice Krispies — they only last three days. Life cereal was a heavy bang for your buck, but it got soggy. That strategizing teaches you some real-world problem solving.”

Prioritize mental health: “We recently began to accept that what we’re doing at Ever Forward is wellness: We help students with social–emotional development. We’re not therapists, but I believe that part of mental health is just recognizing that you are not alone. In some communities we work with, talking about mental health is a negative, so I make it as open as possible. You like to have fun? Come to our meeting. You like to eat? Come to our meeting. I am doing for them what I wish I had had. Mindfulness can seem scary, so I’m thoughtful about how I can engage the most people possible, while keeping the message simple.”

This article originally appeared as “Ever Forward” in the September 2021 issue of Experience Life.

Dara
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a James Beard Award–winning food and wine writer based in Minneapolis, where she lives with her two children and buys only local honey.

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