August 2, 2004

A Place Called Home

by Linda Anderson Krech

Debrah Constance has found a way to make a major difference in the lives of South-Central Los Angeles children. As vice president of advertising for a large real-estate company, Constance had developed a serious drinking problem, for which she signed herself into a hospital. By adhering to the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, she discovered a new focus: service. "I found that by helping others I became less self-involved."

Her job included responsibility for community affairs, so she would scout around the community for worthy organizations that could use a corporate contribution. She came across a newspaper article featuring gifted teachers in the Los Angeles area, one of whom caught her attention. Roland Ganges, a chemistry teacher at Jefferson High School, surprised Constance when he turned down her offer of money. "I need your time," he explained, inviting her to visit South-Central and meet with some of the children. That meeting was a turning point in her life. "These students were so eager, so receptive, so bright. It took so little to encourage them."

Constance developed a program in which volunteer employees from the real estate company paired up with students from the school, venturing out into the community together with a common mission. Some assisted the elderly, others gathered blankets for the homeless or organized fundraising events. The success of this program was such that Constance started looking for a job in philanthropy. In the process of job hunting, a friend of hers asked what she really wanted to do with her life. "I thought for a moment and said that I wanted to open a safe house across the street from Jefferson High School, where the students could go after school to get off the dangerous streets, get a healthy snack, watch TV and do their homework."

The next day she resigned and six months later opened A Place Called Home in three rooms of a church, with one volunteer and a few hundred dollars. "Twelve children showed up and agreed to the terms of our contract: no weapons, no drugs, no graffiti." Today they have their own 10,000 square foot building, with more than 300 kids stopping by every day. The facility now includes its own school, in addition to a library, computer lab, recording studio and a small staff of devoted workers and volunteers. There are opportunities for doll-making, poetry, kick boxing and yoga.

Debrah Constance has created a thriving, life-enhancing place for kids and, in the process, has enhanced her own life immeasurably. "Seeing the students thrive was a reward better than a six-figure salary." Thanks, Debrah, for making the world a more hospitable place for children.

Posted on August 2, 2004 9:05 PM
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