GCU Today Magazine: ‘Sydney’s Kids’ graduate

April 23, 2014 / by / 0 Comment

Story by Janie Magruder
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau

During her lifetime, Sydney Browning helped thousands of underprivileged teenagers in Texas navigate the turbulent waters of adolescence and gave them hope for the future. Browning’s tragic death produced a blessing for five more students in her hometown of Phoenix, who have vowed to keep her memory – and her passion for serving others – alive. Meet “Sydney’s Kids.”


Sydney's Kids, from left, Sarai Pina, Elizabeth Macias, Ada Ortega (holding a portrait of Sydney Browning), Christian Morales and Jessica Reyes fulfilled the promise of a free GCU education, which was extended to them almost 14 years ago.

Sydney’s Kids, from left, Sarai Pina, Elizabeth Macias, Ada Ortega (holding a portrait of Sydney Browning), Christian Morales and Jessica Reyes fulfilled the promise GCU extended to them by studying hard and keeping Browning, a GCU alumna who was murdered in 1999, close to their hearts.

Christian Morales sits in Grand Canyon University’s Starbucks scanning a list of 63 names: This boy just got out of prison, that girl has two children. This one moved away, that one’s on Facebook. This one may not have known about the promise, that one didn’t do well enough in high school to use it anyway.

But five people on the list, including Morales, did. Elizabeth Macias. Ada Ortega. Sarai Piña. Jessica Reyes. Five of “Sydney’s Kids” whose success at GCU has produced something good from something evil that happened 14½ years ago.

Sydney Browning would be proud.


On an autumn morning in 1999, two classes of second-graders held hands to walk with their teachers from Granada Primary School to the University, which was celebrating its 50th anniversary. The children sang an off-key but crowd-pleasing rendition of “Happy Birthday,” ate hot dogs and cookies, and shyly greeted the smiling guests.

Two days later, and 1,000 miles away, a suicidal gunman stormed into Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth and opened fire, killing seven people, including Browning, a GCU alumna, beloved daughter, teacher, singer and friend. Back in Phoenix, GCU was stunned by the news. The University’s president at the time, Dr. Gil Stafford, was a Browning family friend who wanted to do something in Sydney’s honor. The idea was simple:

Those little singers from Granada, all 63 of them, would receive full-tuition scholarships to GCU if they could graduate from high school and qualify for admission. A perfect fit.

“Sydney was very representative of the kind of students who came here,” Stafford says. “They were looking for a place where they could find community and get a quality education and be involved and make a difference. And her life was a reflection of that. She chose to educate those who were underserved.”

A year after her death, Stafford met with the parents of Sydney’s Kids to explain his plan and present each child a certificate with the promise in writing. Over the years, GCU kept in contact with the families, sending letters, offering tutoring and inviting the children to summer camps.

Although Stafford left the University in 2004, the promise was honored by Brian Mueller, who became CEO in 2008. Sixteen of Sydney’s Kids started classes in the fall of 2010, and two more enrolled the next spring. Five finished college — four of them this spring, one a year ago. All are the first in their families to do so.

“It’s really beautiful to know that five of Sydney’s Kids were able to take advantage of the opportunity to come to college and to graduate,” says Stafford, now a priest at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Parish in Tempe. “It’s exciting to see that they have such fantastic dreams.”


Sarai Piña grew up playing piano and soccer, assuming leadership roles in high school, and helping at her church.

On track to become a physician assistant, Piña, 21, will graduate from GCU with a biology degree. She has mixed feelings about benefiting from Sydney’s death and is doing the best she can to emulate her.

Sydney Browning is a part of my life, and I won’t ever forget her.”

Piña met Diana and Don Browning, Sydney’s parents, in her freshman year. “They didn’t know how this would turn out, but they had true faith, and they have been a blessing to us.”


Sydney's Kids gather with Diana and Don Browning around a work table in their old second-grade classroom at Granada Primary School.

Sydney’s Kids gather with Diana and Don Browning around a work table in their old second-grade classroom at Granada Primary School.

Fourteen years haven’t erased the heaviness in the Brownings’ hearts, nor have they dimmed the memories of their eldest daughter. Sydney was fiercely independent, an ear-trained pianist with an extraordinary alto voice, a primo off-the-cuff speaker. She double-majored at GCU in Christian studies and criminal justice, then moved to Fort Worth to earn a master’s in education. She said she would come home in three years. She never did.

Sydney directed choirs and sang solos at Wedgwood Baptist, and she was a champion for students at Fort Worth’s Success High, one last opportunity for many troubled teens.

“Sydney’s students asked her one day if she would take a bullet for them,” Don Browning recalls. “And she was so funny and sly, she said, `Yes, because, first of all, I know how many of you would never get around to getting life insurance, and secondly, I know where I’m going when I die.’”


Jessica Reyes came to GCU with so many dual-enrollment college credits that she probably could have finished in two years. Instead, she took three, thriving in her small classes, tackling organic chemistry and earning her biology degree last spring.

Reyes, 22, is working to save money for medical school and hopes to become a pediatrician who helps families without basic health care. Like Sydney, she wants to leave her mark on the world.

“This was such a huge blessing. I feel that something good came of something bad. “


By the time she graduated from high school, Elizabeth Macias had lost touch with GCU and had no money to go to college. Her sister-in-law, Nicole (Foley) Macias, a GCU alumna, brought Elizabeth to campus and introduced her to Jennifer Flores, an admissions counselor. The scholarship offer, Flores said, was still good.

As a GCU student, Macias, 21, put a lot of pressure on herself, fearful of failing the Brownings. She hopes to use her degree in psychology to help troubled teens and families.

“I honestly don’t know what I would have done without the promise that was made to me. And I felt I owed it to Sydney Browning to be here and do well. I think she would be very proud of what’s becoming of that promise.”


In August, Ada Ortega will move to California to start her doctoral program in pharmacy at Loma Linda University.

“I feel like God had a plan for me,” she says. “I had to follow the path to get here, but He pretty much set it up for me.”

While at GCU, Ortega, 22, held down two jobs, played intramural football and worked hard to earn a biology degree. She recognized the gravity of her good fortune and wanted to make it count. She hopes that the Brownings feel a blessing has come from their tragic loss.

“Sydney was always helping other kids, and that’s why they did this for us. If she had had that chance to be here, she would have done the same.”


Christian Morales might have gone to community college without the GCU scholarship. But GCU was perfect for him. After changing his major several times as a freshman, Morales, 21, settled on sociology and wants to be a social worker or a counselor. “I don’t want to do just one thing in my life,” he says. “I want to do many things.”

When Morales started at GCU, he created a bucket list of accomplishments by the time he’s 30: Get a college degree. Visit Japan. Work in an underdeveloped country. And he made a promise to Sydney Browning.

“I want to return the favor. Even if I couldn’t pay someone’s full tuition, maybe I could buy someone’s books or maybe create a ‘Tribute to Sydney’ scholarship.”


This week’s graduation of Sydney’s Kids fulfills the original promise made nearly 14 years ago and brings a sense of resurrection to Stafford.

“Sydney’s life was taken out of the world, but her influence and legacy has had a lasting value among the children she taught.” Stafford says. “And her name has a lasting legacy at GCU among the 18 who came and the five who graduated. They will have an exponential effect on the world because of her life.”

Contact Janie Magruder at 639.8018 or janie.magruder@gcu.edu .

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