Doctors said they'd be disabled. Now 17, the triplets have earned college degrees.
Keenya and Richard Brown will watch with pride Thursday when their three youngest children triplets walk with other graduates of Central Piedmont Community College at Bojangles Coliseum.
But that will only begin the achievements of the 17-year-olds, born prematurely and expected by doctors to face lifelong disabilities.
Next Tuesday, in a separate commencement, each teen will accept two diplomas they earned simultaneously: one from Cato Middle College High School and the second a CPCC associate's degree.
Then they'll be off to college on scholarships, the two boys, Koby and Keyshawn, to study nuclear engineering at N.C. State University and Kayla as an accounting major on a Winthrop University basketball scholarship.
"I tell everybody I'm about to get my life back," said Keenya Brown, who for years chauffeured her "miracle babies" about Charlotte.
Both grew up in the Bronx, where their own parents struggled with drug problems. The Browns, a couple since they were 16, wanted a different life and left New York for a fresh start.
The young family lived in Maryland when the triplets were born at just 25 weeks, each baby weighing less than 2 pounds.
Both boys had bleeding in their brains, and all three babies stayed in neonatal intensive care for three months. Doctors predicted all three would suffer from cerebral palsy and have learning disabilities, particularly in science and math, due to complications from their early births.
"It was touch and go every single day," said Keenya Brown, who is a physical therapy assistant. "I got on my knees and told God, if you think I can handle it, then let it be. If you think I can't handle it, then please intervene and clear the blood up."
One last sonogram showed that the bleeding had stopped. All three triplets grew up healthy and smart in Charlotte, where the family moved in 2004.
The triplets took advantage of North Carolina's Career & College Promise program, which lets juniors and seniors earn tuition-free college credits while earning their high school degrees at four of CPCC's campuses. Students and their parents may save thousands of dollars on college because they can start as juniors.The three Brown teens will be among five students at Cato Middle College High, on CPCC's Cato campus in east Charlotte, who will earn associate's degrees in two years.
" 'Focus' is a very good word for them, as well as 'dedication,' " said principal Alicisa Johnson. "They are an example of what taking advantage of the Middle College program really looks like."
Spring grades aren't in yet, but through fall classes Koby had a perfect 5.03 grade-point average, weighted to reflect the quality of classes he took. He ranked second in his class of 98 students. Keyshawn also had a perfect 5.0 GPA and ranked third. Kayla had a 4.7 GPA and ranked 13th.
Education the keyThe boys are "joined at the hip," their mother said, sharing a bedroom at home and planning to room together at N.C. State. They're reserved and enjoy family trips.
Keyshawn won a full academic Goodnight scholarship to N.C State, and Koby also earned several scholarships and grants. Both will go to State in June for a six-week transition program. The boys are interested in military careers after college both their parents served in the Army Reserves and in the National Guard.
Kayla is more outgoing, Brown said, and is captain of her high school basketball team. The 5-foot-4 guard was conference player of the year for Mallard Creek High.
"My parents from Day One always stressed that education is the key, that it was going to take us to where we wanted to go," Kayla Brown said.
"When you're a kid you want to go do what everybody else is doing, to parties and hanging out, and sometimes you just can't. So many times I cried and so many times I asked, why do I have to do this? But I have hopes and dreams and know where I want to be."
Kayla wants to be a forensic accountant, investigating fraud or embezzlement for the FBI or some other government agency. It's the suggestion of her father, a self-employed network engineer, who knew her knack for numbers.
She also wants to be a philanthropist, an ethic she also learned from her parents. The family has volunteered at Second Harvest Food Bank and for the past two Christmases has sponsored homeless families.
"We just knew you don't have to be a product of your environment, we always tell people that," Keenya Brown said. "We try to pass it forward."
Brown and her husband "kept a book in front of their faces" and made a practice, in summer, of starting their children on the courses they would face in the upcoming school year. "School just started getting easier for them," Brown said.
Because of their coursework at CPCC, the triplets could finish their undergraduate degrees in two years but will likely slow it to three. Kayla, with a four-year scholarship, could graduate Winthrop with a master's degree. The eldest son, Richard Jr., graduated from Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla.
"We timed it just perfect," Keenya Brown said.
After commencement exercises are done, and before the next level of schooling begins, the family will squeeze in a week-long trip to Cancun in late May.