Difference Maker

Lisa Fitzpatrick dropped everything and started a New Orleans youth center

She quit her job, sold her possessions, including her home, and dedicated her resources, energy, and time to New Orleans' most neglected youths.

By , Staff writer

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    Lisa Fitzpatrick, executive director of the APEX Youth Center in New Orleans, stands in the center’s recreation area.
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A group of bright red tricycles is put away each evening. But then, mysteriously, they reappear the next morning in a cluster tucked into the corner of the playground.

The culprits are not children but young men, nearly 20 years old, who can often be seen having the time of their lives riding the tiny three-wheelers or climbing on the jungle gym.

"Some of the toughest-looking guys you will ever see: six feet tall, dreads, tattoos," says Lisa Fitzpatrick. "So many of our kids missed a childhood because of [hurricane] Katrina; it's nothing for me to come out here and see a 17-year-old going down a slide."

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Despite her sweet demeanor, Ms. Fitzpatrick is considerably tough herself. As executive director of APEX Youth Center, one of the only drop-in centers in New Orleans for at-risk youths, she thinks nothing of going to street corners that are notorious for drug sales and talking up the free pool games at the center, pulling guns out of the waistbands of kids who enter through her doors, or stopping fistfights by standing between both parties to give them pause.

To ensure that this center – a former preschool next to a Methodist church – flourished, she quit her job; sold her family's possessions, including their home; and dedicated her resources, energy, and time to the city's most marginalized youths, growing up in a culture of violence and neglect.

"I found a strength I never thought I possessed," she says, in "working with these young people that everyone else had vilified and had put on every movie poster as 'this is what the bad guy looks like.' "

Despite a steadily growing population and a thriving entrepreneurial spirit, New Orleans has seen poverty remain stubbornly high in the years since 2005 when water overwhelmed broken flood walls and submerged 80 percent of the city during hurricane Katrina. According to figures from the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, the city's poverty rate was 29 percent in 2011, returning to 1999 levels.

In 2011, the violent crime rate per 100,000 residents was 792, double the national rate of 386. Children, in particular, are struggling. In 2011, the child poverty rate in New Orleans increased to 42 percent, almost double the US rate of 23 percent.

In addition, devastation from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and a subsequent moratorium on deepwater drilling, undercut jobs beyond the oil and gas industry.

APEX, which stands for "Always Pursuing Excellence," is unique because it is structured to serve not just young children but teenagers and young adults, who have few job prospects and little education. The center offers tutoring, a GED certificate program, and music and arts education, and it stresses conflict resolution and job skills. Since APEX opened in 2010, more than 500 kids have spent time there.

But APEX has struggled, too. Despite a mission to reduce the murder rate – "We can't build strong communities for tomorrow if our kids aren't alive today," Fitzpatrick says – including older youths makes it difficult to raise funds as most grant money targets programs for kids 16 years old and younger or programs with more defined missions.

Young adults are often written off as lost causes. But Fitzpatrick says that they can also be those most in need of help, especially those who have lived in the foster care system for years and then are released without adequate social skills.

APEX serves the 12-to-18 age group each weekday afternoon; the age range widens in the evening hours when those up to age 25 are invited in. On Saturdays, all ages are welcome.

Programs like hers are hard to describe to potential donors because outcomes can't be neatly assessed. In working with the "highest of the highest risk" youths, success means her kids reach adulthood, she says. Out of her 500 kids, only three have been murdered on the streets, she says.

"We should statistically have lost a lot more, but they're alive," she says.

Fitzpatrick arrived in New Orleans in 2008 to work as chief financial officer for a local hospital system. Previously she had logged years in Los Angeles working in public health where she counseled members of the city's most notorious street gangs and designed a software system that tracked assessments and outcomes for public health professionals.

Then she sold her company and entered the corporate world, where she found that her hybrid résumé of experience in the public health and technology industries was desirable.

But for years, she and her husband knew that APEX was their future: They figured they would invest in the center upon retirement, 15 years away. Her vision was that APEX would "look more like an episode of 'Glee' than an episode of 'The Wire,' " she says.

"We said we'd serve the people who are put in front of us in the location where we are placed. That's the commitment we made," she says. "It was going to be way down the line."

But then, on Sept. 9, 2009, on her way home she encountered "yellow tape everywhere." Police had responded to the killing of Donato Quinn, a 20-year-old who was the cousin of her daughter's best friend and a frequent visitor to the Fitzpatricks' New Orleans home.

Mr. Quinn was murdered while police were investigating a carjacking on the same block that left a suspect dead. According to the Times-Picayune newspaper, Douglas Reeder later confessed to killing Quinn and agreed to a 29-year sentence in December 2012.

The ordeal conveyed the senselessness associated with urban violence. "I shot [Quinn], and I don't know why," Mr. Reeder told police.

The murder woke Fitzpatrick up. She told her husband they couldn't wait 15 years. The next week she quit her job. To her amazement, her former boss became APEX's first, and most consistent, donor.

"I'm just blown away by this lady. She's not just writing a check; she is living it. That, to me, is the most amazing thing," says Daniel Daigle, owner of MDA Consultants, which owns and manages several area health-care facilities and who had hired Fitzpatrick.

APEX moved into its present facility last summer. It has a kitchen that serves daily meals, a music rehearsal room, a recreation area, a library, and considerable outdoor space, including a basketball court and playground.

It also happens to be in Central City, one of the most crime-ridden sections of New Orleans. Natasha Singleton sends her four children to APEX. It "opens their minds," she told the New Orleans Business Journal. "I thank God for the Apex Center because my kids don't have to be outside where guns are popping off."

On a recent Saturday about 80 children and young adults were present – learning computer skills, shooting pool, hitting ping-pong balls, and playing outdoors in a gentle rain. A grant of $40,000 from the city allows Fitzpatrick to maintain a small staff.

In December, a check for $50,000 arrived from the company 5-hour ENERGY, which will be used to upgrade the kitchen and the fire and electrical systems. Since the Fitzpatricks already had sold their major possessions, depleted their savings, and relocated to a two-bedroom apartment with their two children, the injection of funds was welcome.

But challenges persist. This past fall, one of the foster children she and her husband sheltered for almost two years was murdered while walking to a convenience store. He was already in mourning himself: His 2-year-old daughter had been killed two years earlier.

The cycle of violence suggests that the one question Fitzpatrick asks every visitor to APEX – "What are your hopes and dreams?" – is more urgent than ever.

She draws strength, she says, from the rich cultural history of New Orleans, where traditions such as Mardi Gras serve as beacons.

"We've become too passive in our stance for peace," she says. "If we go back to the things New Orleans is famous for – generosity, love, equality – we can use them as tools."

• For more, visit http://apexyouthcenter.org.

Help young people worldwide

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations worldwide. Projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause.

Below are groups selected by UniversalGiving that help youths worldwide:

Operation USA helps communities alleviate the effects of disasters, disease, and endemic poverty throughout the world. Project: Build self-esteem in teen girls in New Orleans.

The GVN Foundation supports charitable and educational work by local organizations in various countries. Project: Volunteer to teach or care for children in Guatemala.

Rural Communities Empowerment Center provides resources and services to achieve high levels of literacy in rural communities in Ghana. Project: Help support a community resource center.

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