STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Meet Naton Brown. She beat brain cancer. She defied schoolyard bullies. Next up: graduation.

Jennifer Deming

It’s hard to remember now. Naton Brown isn’t sure what year it was. But she was eight years old.

"Yeah, I don’t remember," she tells me. "I just know that I kept on telling my mom I had headaches, and we went to the hospital, but then the doctor said it’s just because they thought I was dehydrated or something."

She wasn’t dehydrated. The headaches kept coming. One day at school, Brown fell down the stairs. They took her to the Emergency Room.

Her mother, Delores Lilly, says that’s when they found the tumor.

"Devastating," Lilly says, recalling the day she got the news. "You hear cancer and you think death."

It was brain cancer. Lilly says her daughter didn’t come home after the tumor was discovered. She went immediately into intensive care. She had surgery a week later, then chemo.

The treatment went on for four years. Lilly says her daughter made friends at the hospital. They’d race up and down the halls, clutching their IV poles.

But if you have brain cancer, and your friends have brain cancer, death will become part of your life.

Lilly remembers the friends her daughter lost. She remembers the funerals.  

"And that was really devastating for her, because she thought ‘Oh my God, I have brain cancer,'" Lilly says. "And I remember her crying to me and saying, ‘Am I going to die?’ And you don’t have an answer for that.”

Naton Brown did not die. She beat cancer. But that wasn’t the end. Next, she had to beat bullying.

"She got bullied a lot because of her hair," Lilly says. "Because her skin was really, really dark from being burned from the radiation. Kids can be really cruel."

It was so bad, Lilly decided to change schools. That didn’t end the bullying, but it helped.

"Everybody has their own struggles. But then there's certain soldiers in life that have been hit a little bit differently than other people. And it does bring out a different type of quality in them where it's like, 'I'm not going to give up as easy, I'm not going to quit as easy, because I beat the odds.'"

Then, a few years ago, Brown started going to her neighborhood Boys and Girls Club, known as the Seidman Center.

She showed me around last week. She’s become a leader at the Seidman Center. I first met her at a ceremony where she’d been named a finalist for the citywide Boys and Girl’s Club Youth of the Year award, in part for how she interacts with other kids.

"When she sees kids bullying other kids, she does say, 'Hey guys, stop that. That's not cool,'" says Ken Reed, who directs the educational programs at the Seidman Center.

Reed says Brown has a special quality.

"Everybody has their own struggles," he says. "But then there’s certain soldiers in life that have been hit a little bit differently than other people. And it does bring out a different type of quality in them where it’s like, ‘I’m not going to give up as easy, I’m not going to quit as easy, because I beat the odds.’ Like, she beat death."

This May, Naton Brown will graduate from high school. Next year, she’s hoping to go to a technical college.

She wants to be a nurse. She wants to take care of kids. 

"I love kids," she beams. "And I babysit all my cousins."

"Why do you want to be a nurse?" I ask.

"Because all the things I been through when I had cancer," she says.

All the things she’s been through will make it harder. Her cancer treatment has lingering effects. She struggles with memory. She struggles with balance and coordination.

But she has overcome challenges before. College will just be the next chapter.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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