HOMEFRONT: How and why did you start A Place Called Home?
Debrah: I started A Place Called Home after I saw that movie “Stand & Deliver” and I was so moved my Jaime Escalante and his teaching of the children in South Central, and then two weeks later I saw a full page ad in the L.A. Times about Roland Ganges, who taught at Jefferson High School. At that time I was Vice President of Jon Douglas, one of the largest real estate firms in California, and I was in charge of marketing and public relations.
I went to Mr. Douglas and I said, “Why don’t we fund this teacher in the inner city?” He said, “What good will that do?” I said, “That will give you great PR because you’ll be helping so many children.” He said, “OK.” So, I had Snookie’s Cookies and milk delivered to Roland Ganges for his class, and one day I got a call and he said, “This is Roland Ganges and I don’t want money, I want your time. I want you to come down here.” I thought he could be nuts.
But, I went to South Central and I walked into Roland’s classroom and life as I had known it was over. I instantly fell in love with his kids and he said, “These children have never been out of South Central.” So I involved them with all my charity work. I was on the board of Alternative Living for the Aging, and the National Council of Jewish Women, and the Clare Foundation. We did “workouts for the homeless.” I had the children sent out to different gyms all over California and they handed out T-shirts and collected money for the homeless. Everybody’s life changed. I started a hike-a-month program, and a mentoring program and I got the realestate brokers from Jon Douglas involved. One day the Jon Douglas attorney said, “You can’t do this. A broker could get shot in South Central, the kids could get harmed, anything could happen!”
I didn’t listen. I never listen. I’m not good at following rules; everybody knows that. I met with David Crippens, who was Vice President of KCET. He said, “Debrah what do you want to do with the rest of your life?” I said, “All I want to do is help the kids at Jefferson High School. But, I can’t. I don’t have a high school diploma. I never graduated from anything.” David said, ” You can do this. Make a list of what you want to do and what you need and get your nonprofit status.”
So, I resigned, and Jon Douglas gave me $50,000 in severance pay, which is what I used to start APCH. I went around to look for property and I found Bishop Richardson, who welcomed me and the kids to his church. At one point we had hundreds of gang members running up and down the stairs and that’s when we decided we needed a bigger space.
I had already been through cancer, child abuse, spousal abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, and drug dealing. When I started A Place Called Home, I used all these experiences as gifts and we created a dream family. My whole life and my whole love are those children. When I looked at the gang members, they were children to me. I could always see God when I looked in their eyes and that’s how it is with all the children at A Place Called Home. It was just pure love and that’s what it is today.
HOMEFRONT: What did you imagine for APCH 20 years ago and has it fulfilled your expectations?
DC: It would have to be the same as it was when I started, and that is love. I mean, this new Executive Director, Jonathan, is unbelievable. When you walk into his office, all it is is love. You look at Jonathan what do you see? I mean, you can’t help it. That’s just what he is. He puts his arms around you, what do you feel? You look at him, look at the children, what do you feel? So I’m so lucky that Jonathan was able to enter this huge family and turn it into his.
HOMEFRONT: How has APCH and your interaction with members and staff impacted your life over the past 20 years?
DC: The children at A Place Called Home, and the members, and the staff, it was one big family. It was always one person giving to another person that always brought about that psychic change. It brought it in me; it brought it in them everyday.
HOMEFRONT: What’s one of your fondest memories tied to A Place Called Home?
DC: We had a reunion and all the older children in their late 20’s and early 30’s appeared. One of the kids there was Dewey. I remember late one night there was a knock at my door and standing there was Dewey. I said, “Dewey what are you doing?” He said, “I want to kill someone.” “You want to kill someone?” “I want to kill someone.” So I sat down with Dewey and said, “No Dewey, you don’t want to kill someone. First, I want you to finish high school. Then, go to college and THEN you can kill someone.” He was so surprised by that answer that he left. Well Dewey was here at the reunion and driving a brand new white Escalade. He has a business in Colorado now and he’s doing unbelievable. Whether they’re in prison, whether they’re here, a lot of them are doing fabulously and it just makes my heart sing.
HOMEFRONT: If you could go back 20 years and tell your old self something about A Place Called Home today, what would it be?
DC: Great job!
HOMEFRONT: What were some major challenges you had to overcome in making your dream into a reality?
DC: None. The minute I started A Place Called Home, that was it. The reality had come. The dream had come. The first 12 children that walked through those doors planted the seeds for the next thousand children. I had fought for equality my entire life. My dream had been realized.
HOMEFRONT: Do you know what happened to those rare kids that were kicked out?
DC: No. But there was somebody who used to steal money from me all the time. I talked to him and told him not to do it anymore and he never came back to A Place Called Home. He got killed on the streets and I felt terrible. I’ve been to a lot of funerals and I’ve buried a lot of our children. A lot of the children have gone to prison. I always tell them that when they come out of prison, A Place Called Home will always be there for them.
A Place Called Home wasn’t what it is today. The children that didn’t go to prison were a miracle. The children that didn’t get killed were more of a miracle. These weren’t the good students that are now on the APCH Shaheen Scholarship. These were kids that had a hard time staying alive, and so for them to graduate, for them to go to trade school, for them to still be alive, that was a gift.
HOMEFRONT: Out of the original 12, who do you know about?
DC: Well, Ebony Wilson went to Washington State, football scholarship. So did his brother Travey, and he actually got his Master’s degree and is a principal of a school in Washington State. And Sally Zuniga, she’s a teacher at UCLA. I mean a lot of the beginning children at A Place Called Home are doing very well.
HOMEFRONT: Where do you see A Place Called Home headed in the next 20 years?
DC: Well I see the teens returning to A Place Called Home and I can see the at-risk children returning. I see it expanding.
HOMEFRONT: What steps did you take to expand A Place Called Home?
DC: Johnny Carson played a huge role. I talked to him regularly. He was like my mentor when I was having real problems about money or about what I should do. I wanted to buy the building to expand because we were growing so fast. I asked Johnny Carson if he would help me raise the million dollars to do this and he said no. He said, “If my $100,000 helps one child, that’s all I want you to do. If you expand like that then you’ll run out of energy and I don’t want that.” Then, he actually came down to A Place Called Home and I got to take him through and show him everything and that was a miracle. And as I walked him to his car, he said, “I’m going to put a check in the mail tomorrow for you for a million dollars to buy that building,” and he did.
HOMEFRONT: What gets you out of bed in the morning?
DC: I wake up happy. I’m very lucky. Everyday is a little different. For instance, yesterday Jonathan sent me an email about a woman who was looking to start her own nonprofit, similar to A Place Called Home but she needed help. She had come down to A Place Called Home and saw what I had created and was trying to replicate it, but was having such a problem with her organization, so I invited her over for lunch. We sat in the yard and I spent two hours mentoring her. She came in crying and left hugging me and thanking me and saying she now had hope, and she was only 30 years old. That gives me tremendous joy, being able to help others. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.
HOMEFRONT: Being a woman, have there been challenges faced due to your gender?
DC: No. Being white in South Central was sometimes a problem. Being a woman, I’m not sure. 20 years ago when a white woman showed up to help older children, it was questioned. So that was hard. I remember one time, when I was still at the church, two African American women came and asked, “Where’s Debrah Constance?” I said, “I’m Debrah Constance.” They said, “No you’re not. Debrah Constance is black.”
HOMEFRONT: What advice would you give to entrepreneurs of the future who want to follow a path similar to yours?
DC: Well they have to have the passion and the love. To create A Place Called Home, to create a center for children, you have to be driven. You can’t just start, because it’s too big a job. You don’t know what you’re getting into.
HOMEFRONT: What do you think will be your legacy?
DC: Getting my story made into a movie. When that’s done, I hope millions of people see it and are inspired by it and go out and start “A Place Called Home’s” all over the world. Also, the change in children’s lives. To help them see other roads to take.
There should be A Place Called Home in every corner to help all the children. Whether they’re rich or from the inner-city, children all need A Place Called Home. They all need the love of caring adults. They all need some help just to live.
How many gifts can you get in this life and still be here? I feel like the luckiest person in the world to have this life. And I love my life.
HOMEFRONT: Do you feel because of the openness and the love that you brought into A Place Called Home that African American gang members and Latino gang members coming here, it opened up their minds and gave them a better understanding of humanity?
DC: I think they wanted to have what we have at A Place Called Home. They wanted to work out. They wanted to have food. They wanted to participate. It happened very slowly. When I was at the church you could cut the room in half. Latinos on one side and African Americans on the other side. They would never cross that line. But then they would. There were things like that that happened regularly, that I got to experience, that I got to give to and help.
HOMEFRONT: What are some kids’ firsts that you remember?
DC: I remember Monique and Kiki were celebrating their 17th birthday. And I remember this from the bottom of my heart, they were singing happy birthday and Kiki said, “You know, this is the first birthday I’ve ever had in my life and I’m now 17.”
Another one was Autumn. Autumn was sitting next to me in the Dance Studio and they were teaching tap. She was 10 years old. I said, “Don’t you want to dance?” She said “no.” “What if I brought over a pair of tap shoes, you can borrow them.” She said no. “What if I gave you a pair of tap shoes?” She said “yes.” So I gave Autumn a pair of tap shoes and not only did Autumn tap but she came to be the dance teacher’s assistant. An unbelievable dancer and she now teaches dance.
Then there was Cecilia. Cecilia came from a family where they had 5-6 people sleeping on the floor and she was an unbelievable dancer and a great student. All these things that happened were miracles.
In the church I started lowering the age. I only lowered the age for one reason, and that was to stop the older children from killing each other. I brought the younger kids in because I knew they wouldn’t kill their younger sister and they wouldn’t kill the other one’s younger brother. That’s what stopped the prejudice. That’s what brought them together, having the younger children, because that killed all possibility of violence in the center. I brought them in to stop the violence with the older children and it worked.
HOMEFRONT: If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing in the community around A Place Called Home, what would it be?
DC: I would build a kibbutz. North, South, East, and West.
HOMEFRONT: What’s a kibbutz, Debrah?
DC: A kibbutz is a family home. A safe place for all the children and the mothers. There would be a couple of family homes that children going to college could live in. The whole neighborhood would be like a gingerbread. Beautiful. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do.
HOMEFRONT: And what would be the purpose of the kibbutz?
DC: To make a safe place for all.
HOMEFRONT: How do you see A Place Called Home growing and evolving today?
DC: I believe its growing so magnificently under Jonathan that it’s just dream-like. The kids are going to college, that’s unbelievable, and they’re going to Japan and they’re going to Berklee College of Music. I mean who could want more?! I can see older children getting more involved. The older children in the neighborhood really need help too and I know Jonathan is heading that way because they’re on the street now and they’re getting killed. I know that everybody is working toward that.
HOMEFRONT: Has your focus always been the older kids?
DC: Yes. My focus has always been the older kids for several reasons. When I started A Place Called Home, everybody helped the younger children. That was Mayor Riordan’s big thing, help the younger children. Almost all nonprofits are for younger children. When I started volunteering at Jefferson High School, I volunteered with the older kids. Who needed the help? Older kids. These kids had never been out of South Central. These kids have never seen another way in life. That became my passion. It was so strong. Because nobody was getting these kids off the streets. They were getting shot. I was burying them. It was horrible.
HOMEFRONT: What is Debrah Constance focused on now? What’s your next big thing?
DC: My next big thing is life. Studying African spiritualism under Maladoma. My son and I first had a reading under him in Berkley, it was called “Divination” where he reads stones and he talks about your future and then we had six days studying under Maladoma in Santa Cruz, at the Quaker Center. And we’re going to do this twice a year for the next three years so that’s a major change in my life. I just love helping. What could make me happier? Nothing! Maybe I’m meant to work with young children now. I don’t know. I’m doing my weaving. I do sewing. I make dolls. And, I’m also working on a movie with Doug Atchison, the movie of my life, from my autobiography “Fat, Stupid, Ugly: A Woman’s Courage to Survive,” and I survived and I’m so happy that I survived and that I’m here to tell you about it. So the movie is a big thing.
HOMEFRONT: What advice would you give to the younger generation?
DC: To give. When you give, you have to be grateful. Gratitude. Gratitude is the key to living. And giving is the key to being alive. The more you give, the more you get. And helping others. That’s life.
HOMEFRONT: Who has been an inspiration in your life?
DC: Jaime Escalante. He’s the one that started it all. If I hadn’t seen that movie, I wouldn’t have been moved by the gifted teachers in LA. A Place Called Home would have never appeared.
HOMEFRONT: Last question, how do you define success?
DC: Happiness. Love.