NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - A New Orleans couple sells their home and quits their jobs - not to embark on a trip around the world, but to fund a non-profit youth center. Their reason for doing so hits incredibly close to home.
Central City is one of the most violent neighborhood in New Orleans. Two years ago on Simon Bolivar Avenue, a 5-year-old was killed when gunfire rang out at a birthday party. Just last year, a stray bullet from a shooting went into a home and grazed a 7-year-old girl in the 2200 block of St. Andrew Street.
On that same corner sits something that may seem out of place amidst the violence: a place of refuge; a quiet island for so many of the kids who are frequent witnesses to the bloodshed.
On a typical Saturday, the sounds of street ball fill the air here as hot dogs sizzle on the outdoor grill. The meals are being prepared for any hungry belly that walks in the door. Danny Fitzpatrick says, "You have to have something to get them to come. If you don't, you don't get a chance to build a relationship. No reason to get to know you or feel comfortable enough to come back."
This is the APEX Center started by Danny and Lisa Fitzpatrick four years ago. The couple both ditched their six-figure salary jobs to open a non-profit in the heart of Central City after watching the violence in New Orleans escalate to an alarming level. "We couldn't be the people on this side of the tape anymore saying somebody do something. We felt we had the means and the education and the where with all to do something," said Lisa Fitzpatrick.
Using their life savings, they formed APEX. First housed in a church and other various buildings, the couple rented this property they're currently in on Simon Bolivar last May. The couple was able to rent the property through an agreement with and the generosity of People's United Methodist Church who owned the property. It's not the safest location, but it is the most practical. Lisa explains, "There's got to be someplace that everyone is welcome and that's what we want to be."
Danny and Lisa run the center themselves, with just one other paid employee. Volunteers from local colleges provide much-needed help, as on some days, 60 to 70 kids show up here. The goal here is simple: Open the doors to kids and teens ages 12 to 18, keep them occupied and off the streets, and through tough love and some strategic conflict resolution training, help them stay away from violence and become productive members of society.
Sixth-grader Durance Singleton says, "I think it's a really good place for me to come because it keeps me out of trouble and stuff. I'm not a trouble kid but it keeps me out of trouble."
The Fitzpatrick's say it took a while for them to gain the trust of the kids who walked through their doors. Hundreds have come and gone over the four years they've been open but they're proud to say they are seeing results. "We see it when kids come and show us their college enrollment papers and no one in their family has ever been to college. We see it when they bring their child here and tell us they're taking responsibility," said Lisa Fitzpatrick.
Parents who visit the center say they too are seeing changes in their children because of the amount of time they're spending at APEX. Herbert Gums says, "They help them with their school stuff. They actually catch the bus right there every morning and get off right there every evening. Before they come home, they're coming right here."
Joseph Copeland says, "They have so much going on in here to where its somewhere safe for them to be. They love it, they love coming here."
One of the reasons why Lisa Fitzpatrick focuses so much attention on children is because of a terrifying experience nearly 30 years ago when her life was almost taken by two boys no older than 12. Lisa explains, "Those children's faces - I will never forget them to this day, there was horror on their face and I turned to the driver and said, 'what are those kids doing?' and right then the shot rang out."
Fitzpatrick was grazed by a bullet. She was the intended victim of a gang initiation in Oklahoma City. "What I realized that night is that the victim isn't always who you think it is," said Fitzpatrick.
Fast forward 28 years, Fitzpatrick says she doesn't want to see any of "her kids," as she calls them, put into a situation like the one in Oklahoma City, which is why she and her husband have sold their house and most of their material possessions just to keep APEX up and running. "It gets tough, but somehow we figure it out, somehow, some way," Lisa Fitzpatrick said.
While a constant struggle, the Fitzpatricks say they wouldn't live their lives any other way, because if their sacrifice can save even one life from senseless violence, their hard work is all worth it.
The Fitzpatricks have been recognized for their good work. Lisa was named a CNN hero last year. But she says the accolades haven't always translated into donations, which is something the center needs.