A promise, born from Wedgwood Baptist tragedy, becomes reality

Daron Beck was a second-grader in Phoenix the night Sydney Browning was gunned down at Wedgwood Baptist Church in 1999.

The young man never met Browning, but she would become one of the most influential people in his life.

On Monday, Beck was one of 13 freshmen starting school at Grand Canyon University in Browning's name.

Browning, 36, a choir director at the southwest Fort Worth church, was a Grand Canyon graduate. Not long after her death, school officials decided to honor her, pledging full tuition scholarships to a group of underprivileged students in Phoenix.

The children became known as "Sydney's Kids," but over time, the university's promise to them would prove difficult to keep as Grand Canyon struggled with its own future.

An admissions counselor, however, remembered the promise, and she and some of the children's mothers made it their mission to see that it was fulfilled.

"God put that tragedy out there and made a miracle out of it for me," Beck said. "I'm honored to have it and to be here. I want to try and have a good future to honor Sydney."

Scholarships for second-graders

Browning had attended Grand Canyon in the early 1980s when it was still a Baptist school.

She moved to Fort Worth to attend Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and became director of Wedgwood Baptist Church's children's choir. A church friend encouraged her to go into teaching, and she also got a job at Success High School, an alternative school in the Fort Worth district.

Her life ended on Sept. 15, 1999, when Larry Gene Ashbrook walked into Wedgwood Baptist and opened fire, killing seven and wounding seven others before turning the gun on himself. Browning was the first to die.

Gil Stafford, president of Grand Canyon University at the time, had known Browning since she was 16. It was his idea to provide 64 second-graders from Granada Primary School with scholarships in her honor. A choir made up of the students had performed at Grand Canyon that month during the school's 50th anniversary.

"She was the kind of person who just filled up a room with her compassion and her energy," said Stafford, now an Episcopal priest. "Though we couldn't bring her back, we could model the university that she loved after her life, which was helping others."

Don Browning, Sydney's father, was hopeful about the idea. He had been a substitute teacher at Granada, where most of the students came from low-income families and often ended up at high schools with low graduation rates. They were very much like the students his daughter was devoted to helping, he said.

"That area doesn't have a lot of kids that go on to college," Browning said.

The school's work with Sydney's Kids started strong.

Officials offered tutoring and mentoring, summer camps, basketball games and even had Halloween celebrations and Easter egg hunts on Grand Canyon's campus.

"The tried to keep us together so we would have friends when we moved in here. They were really interested in us coming here," Beck said. "But it got harder to keep in touch because a lot of us went our separate ways with school."

Then the outreach dwindled. By the time the children were in middle school, they barely heard a word from the university, and some worried that the promise would not be kept.

Grand Canyon was in deep financial trouble, facing nearly $17 million in debt, The Arizona Republic reported at the time. The school nearly closed. Then, in 2004, businessman Brent Richardson bought the university and transformed it into a for-profit college.

A promise not forgotten

Patricia Reyes was determined that her daughter Jessica would attend Grand Canyon, calling the school regularly for the last 11 years to make sure that the promise wasn't forgotten.

"She was made a promise, and she embraced it as, 'That's my college. That's where I'm going,'" Reyes said.

But, as staff kept changing, it became harder and harder to find someone who remembered the pledge.

Finally, Reyes connected with Jennifer Hatch, an admissions counselor. Hatch had known about Sydney's Kids since the beginning because her mother worked at the university. Hatch took it upon herself to see whether the school would still honor the promise.

When Grand Canyon's new leaders said they would make good on the scholarships, Hatch worked with Reyes and another mother to track down the students. Many could not be found.

"It was completely frustrating, but at the same time, the moment you get one or they call you back or walk into the office, it's pure enjoyment," Hatch said. "They're taking the first steps in the process of honoring Sydney, and that's what it's all about."

Jessica Reyes never doubted that the promise would be fulfilled, but it wasn't until she was older that she understood Browning's story. It became personal and inspired her to want to work with children as a pediatrician.

When Jessica Reyes met Browning's family a few months ago, it was overwhelming, the teen said.

"They are so nice," she said. "I really got to know who she was and what she did for people. ... Now she's given me an opportunity to get an education, to follow my dreams. That's just amazing."

Eva-Marie Ayala, 817-390-7700