For the 15 years Raymond Brown has worked as a custodian at White Oak Elementary School in Edenton, North Carolina, countless students, parents and faculty members have been touched by his kindness.
He found out just how much he means to the community recently.
Brown was nominated to win a $10,000 prize as part of the North Carolina School Heroes contest — but he wasn't chosen as one of the winners. One mom couldn't let it end there.
"I was heartbroken," Adrian Wood, a TODAY Parenting Team contributor in Edenton, said. "I cried, and I don't cry over competitions. But this wasn't mine, it was Mr. Brown's."
Wood has four children, and at least one of her children have been attending White Oak Elementary for the last ten years. Her youngest son, Amos, 7, as autism.
"Sending three typical kids to school — you're sad, but you're excited for them," Wood explained. "Sending Amos to school was such a different path. He was three when he started school. He was in diapers and he didn't speak. But after Mr. Brown started saying 'hello' to him and calling him 'Famous Amos,' Amos started saying, 'Hey Brown," when he saw him. He wasn't even saying 'Daddy' at that point, so it was really something."
Brown's affection for little Amos helped the now 7-year-old fit in with his fellow students, too.
"You have this man that everybody loves suddenly paying attention to this little boy," Wood added, "Amos is a hard friend to have. He takes a lot more than he gives and that's tough for children. But those kids saw that he was popular and loved and they started fighting over who would get to hold Amos' hand on the way to the classroom. It meant so much to me for him to be so favored by the other children at school, and Mr. Brown had a big hand in that."
When Wood, who blogs at Tales of an Educated Debutante, shared in a Facebook post that Brown didn't win the School Heroes contest, her community stepped up. Many followers asked if they could donate money to the beloved school custodian. Within a week, they raised $35,000.
On March 20, Wood and the school community surprised Mr. Brown, who thought he was coming to a nearby waterfront park for 38th wedding anniversary photos with his family. Instead, Wood and Amos presented him with a check for the $35,000 in donations while community members cheered.
"I was very surprised," said Mr. Brown, who wore a tuxedo to the event for his photo shoot. "I was caught off guard. To see all those people shouting and hollering 'Mr. Brown, congratulations,' it was beautiful and it's hard to explain, but I know this community loves Mr. Brown."
Michelle Newsome, the principal at White Oak, says her staff adores Brown as much as her students.
"Mr. Brown is really, truly so deserving of all of this and then some," said Newsome. "He's our rock steady fella here at White Oak... he's just a gem and we are so lucky to have him here. There isn't a child in this building that doesn't know who Mr. Brown is and that Mr. Brown cares for them and loves them."
What does Brown plan to do with his $35,000 gift?
"My wife has a little bit of plans for it," Brown explained. "We'll probably travel and see some of our family that we haven't seen since COVID. And she wants to do some work on the house — pull some carpet out and get a bigger porch. I just want a used work truck for myself."