Michael Tatmon stood on the stage of the community college, a brand-new diploma in his hand, his eyes raking the crowd.

Standing at the front of the audience, an elegantly dressed woman waved madly.

"Yeah!" Oral Lee Brown yelled to Tatmon.

The hundreds of people sitting in the wind-swept courtyard of Chabot College did not know they were watching a dream come true -- for Tatmon, the student, and Brown, his benefactor.

It was 17 years ago when their paths first crossed.

Tatmon was a student at an inner-city Oakland elementary school with some of the lowest test scores in the district. He lived in a neighborhood beset by temptation and transgression.

Tatmon, now 23, vaguely remembers the day Brown walked in and told his first-grade class she would pay for the students to go to college -- if they got that far.

It wasn't until much later that he realized what that meant.

"I just know a lady came and said that she was going to end up paying for us to go to school," he said. "In high school, it started to come to reality. I started really understanding more."

Brown, a real estate agent, had been moved to make her unusual promise after a chance encounter with a hungry little girl skipping school. At the time, 1987, Brown was making about $45,000 a year. The idea that she could set aside $10,000 a year in a trust fund seemed about as far-fetched as the hope that the children could live up to their part of the bargain.

Still, Brookfield Elementary officials were soon won over. Brown became a fixture, meeting with children, meeting with parents, drumming home her message: You can do better.

"It has been a job," Brown said simply. "It's something I have to do as long as I am able to do it."

Brown was not the first to shepherd strangers to college. In 1981, businessman Gene Lang was moved to guarantee college funding when he gave a speech at his old elementary school in New York City's Harlem neighborhood.

Today, the "I Have a Dream" Foundation founded by Lang has set up 180 projects in 27 states and has served more than 13,000 students, said Marina Winton, president of the organization.

Though not all the sponsors are rich, the endeavor does require a significant financial commitment. Telling a child that college is an option is not enough. The key is daily contact and mentoring by a caring adult, either the sponsor or a hired project coordinator, Winton said.

"Essentially, we're taking kids where they're typically graduating at a rate of 20 to 40 percent, and we're converting those rates to 60 to 100 percent," Winton said.

Over the years, Brown has become an established fundraiser, creating the Oral Lee Brown Foundation and holding an annual dinner that has helped swell the college fund to about $375,000. She keeps the money in a trust -- "I can't afford to put the kids' future on Wall Street."

Three of Brown's Brookfield students graduated from college last year -- "They've reached the mountain," she said. This year, three more are graduating.

Meanwhile, she is sponsoring 89 new students from Oakland schools, selecting them by soliciting applications districtwide two years ago from fifth and seventh grades. "The need is still there," she said.

When she meets a new group of students, she asks the same thing she asked Tatmon and his classmates: "What are your dreams? Do you want to go to college?"

Typically, every little hand goes up -- so Brown tries to explain what it is going to take.

They have to get up every morning excited to go to school. They have to ask questions and not be afraid if they do not understand something. Ask -- it is okay. You will not feel like a dummy, and even if you do, so what? Dummies need answers, too.

Of the original 23 Brookfield students, 19 went to college. Many are taking longer than four years to finish, often because of turmoil at home.

Some decided to take a different path, which Brown does not count as a failure. She said she is proud of the young man who dropped out of college to follow his dream of becoming a firefighter.

Tracy Easterling was shot as she walked down a street in Oakland. She was 21 years old.

"That was real hard," Tatmon said. "That took a toll out on everybody."

A girl who unexpectedly became pregnant is finishing college and taking care of her 6-year-old.

"That's life," Brown said. "If they had been angels and perfect little kids, they would have never needed Ms. Brown anyway."

At his Chabot College graduation ceremony, Michael Tatmon gives a hug to benefactor Oral Lee Brown. Tatmon, now 23, met Brown when she came into his first-grade class and promised the children that she would help pay for their college expenses.