She has a special constituency

Posted: March 24, 2002

WOODBURY — In the front row at the City Council meeting, six children desperately try to pay attention, stay quiet and not wiggle. Sitting across the aisle is their friend, who is being addressed as Councilwoman Gwendolyn J. Brown.

Sometimes, the gang gets a little restless - no more than the important-looking people sitting behind the microphones - and the councilwoman flashes the occasional stern look or an exaggerated "Shh!"

The children, most of whom have known the neighbor they call Mrs. Brown as long as they've known their parents, understand that they must behave. Mrs. Brown expects it. And they're her special guests at tonight's meeting.

This is the councilwoman's version of Woodbury Civics 101. Over the years, her mentor-like friendship with the neighborhood children has turned into a quasi-club, made up of the core crew that resides on or near Aberdeen Place. She brings the children to council meetings and on her shopping trips, and has taken some on tours of the fire station and other places that fourth graders dream about. They're still trying to fit in the long-anticipated trip to the police station.

On Saturday, Mrs. Brown, 63, will take the kids to see a matinee play at a Burlington Township church - for some, their first theatrical production. "That makes me happy when I can take them somewhere, or share with them their first experience or exposure to something," she said.

To the neighborhood children - "her kids," as she calls them - Mrs. Brown is more than a neighbor. She's a teacher, authority figure, friend and confidante.

Her kids - Devon Johnson, Jamal Badie, Connor Wisely, Muchockee Carter, Darnell Whye, and 6-year-old Ayana Harmon, the only girl - may not know that Mrs. Brown also is only the second African American council member in Woodbury's history. She is also a two-year breast cancer survivor.

When she pulls into the neighborhood around 5 each evening from her secretarial job for the Gloucester County Department of Consumer Protection, there they are, playing kickball in the street or basketball in the court behind Connor's house. They help her carry in bags, and they stay as long as they can.

"My dad used to say they can smell out the fumes from my car before I pull down the road," said the twice-widowed Mrs. Brown, who has one son, Cleatous, now 39 and living outside Washington, D.C.

Mrs. Brown and the children talk about current events and what's going on in their lives. Mrs. Brown knows it all: crushes, mischief, their family life, and how they feel about, well, everything.

"We never fight," said Darnell, who lives two houses down and swears that Mrs. Brown was the first person he ever knew. They've been friends since he was a baby, he said, and "she's just like family." Sometimes, such as when the group is going to council meetings, he'll show up early "just to hang out with her."

When you're with Mrs. Brown there are rules that must be followed: Ring the doorbell one time only, always open doors for ladies, and Mrs. Brown always goes first. The boys' favorite: Do not say "um," "ain't," "yeah," "yup," or "uh-huh."

"He comes home and he's correcting me, after I've been correcting him for years," said Toni Wisely, Connor's mother and Mrs. Brown's neighbor for 15 years. "All it takes is Mrs. Brown."

It's not all fun and games, said Connor, a fourth grader at Evergreen Avenue Elementary School. "We have to learn stuff," he said.

Connor knows his city officials. He was even introduced to the current governor by Mrs. Brown.

"So if we get older, we remember all this," Connor said, musing that maybe one day he will be city council president, or a firefighter.

Mrs. Brown, who in August will become a grandmother, has a special gift with the neighborhood children, Toni Wisely says. "She talks to them like they're adults."

When Mrs. Brown's father died last fall, she sat down and discussed it with the children, who knew him well after spending so much time at their home.

Mrs. Brown knows her young friends are no angels: "They're not getting over on me."

When the boys are caught getting into trouble, their parents discipline them. And then Mrs. Brown - who was an educator for Camden's YWCA for 10 years - steps in and gives a Bible lesson about consequences.

"You have to make it your business to know your children," she said. "I want to know every kid that lives in my neighborhood, because one day I might need [them]. This is an investment."

Contact Nora Koch at 856-779-3869 or nkoch@phillynews.com.

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