July 6, 2000
Making a Difference
One person has created a safe place for youngsters on mean streets
There was a time, I realize now, when I doubted that one individual could make a difference; that is, a real difference in the lives of others. It was the system, the institutions, the economy, I told myself and others; it was social forces, wars, history itself that affected our lives. Not one person. Not you or me. But all that was before I met Debrah Constance.
Constance is the director of A Place Called Home (APCH), a community center and safe house for inner-city kids in South Central. Inner-city, of course, is the euphemism we use to describe Blacks and Latinos, whether we see them as helpless victims of a careless and indifferent society or as irresponsible, rotten kids who make wrong choices which land them in trouble and lead them eventually to a fate they probably deserve. In either case, they are at the center of Constance's world today - and have been for seven years now.
It was seven years ago that this committed Jewish woman, then 46, started APCH in a church's basement rooms. She had an enrollment of 12. Today, the center serves over 300 children daily, ages 9 to 20, with a total membership of 3,500. And it has made a difference in many of their lives, and in hers as well.I am seated with Constance in her office, a tiny trailer with a sewing machine. Constance, dressed in a white T-shirt, red slacks and wearing glasses, is attractive, spirited and natural. All the while that we are conversing, she is knitting. Her eyes move from my face to the quick turn of the knitting needles back to my face, almost in one fluid motion.
She looks toward the door, but continues knitting as Alex H., 20, enters the room. Alex is a former gang member whose troubles are far from over. He has just been released from jail after serving 35 days for a probation violation. He had phoned from jail an hour ago and, as promised, came directly back to APCH.Alex has a shaved head and a piercing under his lip. He looks, well, like someone who might just have been released from jail for violating his probation. But he has shed his old gang outfit of baggy pants and jacket for khakis and a red checkered shirt. He looks fresh and resolute. And I am more than a little surprised.Constance stands and embraces him. Tells him how good it is to have him back. Her feelings are palpable in the room. And Alex recognizes all this in an instant. He hugs her back. If he had any doubts before, they have been erased. He knows that there is no question: She will take him back. He will resume his job at APCH as activities assistant and will be able to finish school.
He starts to tell her about his time in jail. "It's a war zone in there," he begins. "People are killing each other. The cops, they instigate the fights between the Blacks and the Mexicans. I thought I was gonna get cut. There were guys stabbing other inmates, and innocent guys would get blamed for it. I got sent to the hole for 10 days because our dorm was one of the ones that started it. I wasn't even involved." He shook his head. "And Debrah, I saw a lot of the guys who were members here: Paul, Jose, Darryl. My friends. They're doing life," he said, despair in his voice.
Constance listens as though it's her life on the line, not his. And then she tells him what he needs to hear: that he is going to work hard at APCH and that "you're never going to see them again, Alex."She knows Alex's history. That he is one of the young people, not too dissimilar from the kids playing out their lives in prison. His family history is bleak, though familiar. His little sister was killed in front of his eyes as part of a drive-by shooting in his front yard on Halloween eve in l997. His older brother was also killed; two other brothers are in prison.
Constance knows all this, but she believes that if there is a small window of opportunity, young people like Alex can be reached. She tries to keep that window open, sometimes barely a crack and only for a moment, but she seizes every chance. She makes sure that everything is free at APCH; that the children are guaranteed a free education, tutoring, a chance to attend college free; and she offers help, real help, in finding work for them. And, not incidentally, she provides three meals a day.
In l988, as community affairs director for Jon Douglas Realtors, Constance read an article about a dedicated teacher at Jefferson High School in South Central and offered him financial help. Roland Ganges, the teacher, said "I don't want your money; I want your time." She tells me with a grin, "I thought, oh great, I'm dealing with a real nut."
But she came down to South Central and worked with the teachers at Jefferson High and with the kids. "I saw the children didn't have a safe place to go after school, that there was this tremendous need. But I had no idea what to do about it."
Then she had an interview at KCET and they asked her, "What do you really want to do with your life?"And to her astonishment she replied, "All I want to do is open a safe house for the children of Jefferson High School in South Central."
She rented a big house there, gave up her six-figure salary and started APCH. Today she oversees 44 paid employees (many of them youngsters she has nurtured) and an annual operating budget of $l.6 million, all from private donations.
To those who know her, it was not surprising that Constance gave up her handsome income and her secure business niche for a life helping others, for a chance to help repair even a small part of the world. For of course, she had herself once touched bottom, had needed someone to help her get straight.
She had grown up in Great Neck, Long Island, the oldest of three daughters of an advertising executive father and a mother who had been a Broadway actress. As a teenager, she herself had dropped out of high school and fought through alcoholism and drug addiction.
"I had problems growing up," she told me. "My two sisters were Bat Mitzvahed, but I wasn't." Couldn't, she implied. "It was a troubled home," she said.
Constance has memories of sitting alone and terrified in closets and hiding naked in the snow. As a child she lived in fear of her father and felt she would never fit in. She created her own world in her bedroom closet, where she would sit for hours with her dolls, her only friends except for her younger sister, Victoria.At 17 she dropped out of school and ran off with her boyfriend to be married. It was a brutal and terrifying relationship. She ran off to Los Angeles at age 20 to live with her grandparents and enter therapy. She was married again at 25 (in 1972) and had a son, Gideon Irving Haimovitz.
That marriage ended seven years later. There were bouts of drinking, an invasive cancer and, finally, the recognition that she was an alcoholic and needed help. Then the long, painful climb up from the bottom.Touring the bustling, vividly colored headquarters of APCH, here's what you encounter on a random day: You see the children intensely engaged in doing their homework while sprawled on cozy couches, playing video games, pecking away at computer keyboards, fashioning dolls out of yarn and socks, playing pool, eating, playing basketball or studying dance or music. There's a music studio, a computer lab, a gym, a dance studio, classrooms, a playground and a library. The sounds are happy, bustling ones. It is possible to think of this place as a kind of little Israel flowering in the desert, for there is nothing outside except violence, desolation and hopelessness, and rejection based on notions of what children in South Central are like. And in fact, Constance told me: "My whole dream always has been to start a kibbutz. I'd always dreamed of living on one. Right here. Six blocks north, south, east and west."
General Colin Powell, in an interview with Larry King, recently stated that if there was an APCH in every inner city, many of the seemingly intractable problems of our children would be solved. Film director and APCH secretary Robert Greenwald recalls how he got involved: "First I read an article that said it was a safe place for kids who were in this war zone to come and do their homework. It seemed just such a pure and simple idea."
Accredited by the Los Angeles School District, APCH offers young people not in school a chance to earn high school diplomas or GEDs. It offers programs in recreation, job training, sports, mentoring, gang prevention, intervention, and counseling. It has instruction in the visual and performing arts. This is not charity, and it is not blind forgiveness. If the children are on the premises, they have to go to school, belong to A.A., and accept the professional counseling APCH offers. The library reminds the children that it does not lend them books; it gives them away. Books may not be returned.
Among those who have found their redemption at APCH is Alex H.'s friend, Miguel Herrara, 20. Miguel was shot five times in a drive-by just outside the building that houses APCH. He had been skeptical of the place, but after being shot he decided to take a closer look. Today he is the leader of both the center's A.A. program and its gang rehabilitation program. His father went to prison for drug smuggling when Miguel was 8 years old. "I was on the streets since I was 10," he says. Miguel first went to jail at 13 for stealing cars. Out in six months, he became "addicted to gangbanging." When he was 17, his daughter was born.He recalls seeing Constance for the first time while APCH was being built. "I used to see this white lady all the time, coming up, checking on stuff. Like, what was she doing? At first I thought she was a narc. She invited us to hang out at her place, attend school there, become something in life. Then I thought she was saying this stuff so we don't raid her building. She was telling me about the games they'd have. She was telling me all these fun things and I got very excited. I never really had a childhood. She said she was building a wall for me, 'cause I liked to play handball, and there was no place to play but the alley. And then I saw the wall actually going up like she said."
After Miguel got out of the hospital and while he was still on crutches, he ran into Constance again. "She was real worried," he recalls, "and came over to me and asked what happened. She kept talking to me. And little by little by her talking to me, I started believing in myself. Then I decided I'm not gonna end up like my father and let my own daughter become fatherless. One day I was humbled and I came to Constance. I asked her for a job. She hired me on the spot."
Of Miguel, Constance says, "Miguel represents what my life is about. If this center was open for only one reason, and that was to help that kid change his life around, that's enough reason for it to be open."So I think they're really learning. It takes a long time. They've only known one kind of life. Their parents are in prison, their grandparents were gang members. So they're just following history."So Constance waits. And waits. "I never talk to them at first. I don't even try to. I wait for them to look comfortable before I even say hi to them. It can take months."
I wonder what the success of this burgeoning project tells us about the redeemability of human nature and the problems of our educational system. In all probability, the answer is both encouraging and ambiguous. One person can make an enormous difference in the lives of those she touches. But without that person, that spark and catalyst, that pure spirit free of motives of greed or power, projects like this might be frail reeds in the wind.
Constance saved herself by saving these children. Sister Patricia Connor, co-program director of APCH and a member of The Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, says: "Debrah believes that all that she's experienced has helped her to understand these children, because she can tell each one: 'There's nothing you have gone through I haven't gone through. I know addiction. I know abuse.'"
Constance had a pure and simple idea, and as long as she is here, it will grow, absorbing the buildings across the street, neighboring parking lots and abandoned factories and crack houses. After she is gone, it will take the magical presence of another person who loves the children of South Central as her own.A Place Called Home's Web site can be found at www.apch.org