03/06/2000 at 01:00 AM EST
Emerging from an office so small that it once served as a closet, Debrah Constance and her ever-present mutt Muppet tour from room to room, praising the children immersed in kickboxing, writing poetry, fashioning dolls out of yarn and socks and pecking away at computer keyboards. "Whatever you need, you have it in this school," boasts Constance, 53. "These children have books, they have computers, they have air-conditioning." Even the most basic want is anticipated: "They have food."
Hers may seem at first like a somewhat empty pride. After all, these are staples most schools take for granted. But hers is no ordinary school. Totally independent of the vast Los Angeles public school district, A Place Called Home came into being thanks solely to Constance. Defying naysayers from various philanthropic groups who refused even to hire her for support positions, she used her severance pay from a real estate job to create what has become in just six years one of the nation's most successful after-school programs for inner-city kids.
Based in South Central L.A., it offers refuge from the local gangs, as well as tutoring, arts programs that both entertain and educate, and the kind of motherly counseling that boosts the children's self-esteem and thus their performance and potential. From an initial enrollment of just 12 it has grown to serve more than 300 children daily out of a total membership of 3,500, ages 9 to 20.
"At first people in the neighborhood would ask, 'Why is she interested in helping us?' says Maria Botello, 37, an employee whose three daughters are regulars at the center. "I told them that sometimes it only has to take one person to change a life. For us, that person is Debrah."
In fact, who better to impart survival skills than Constance. The oldest of three daughters of an advertising executive father and homemaker mother, she grew up in New York. Her parents divorced when she was just 14, and she later dropped out of high school and fought through alcoholism, drug addiction and three failed marriages. After having also defeated ovarian and uterine cancer in her 30s, she came back from a near-fatal car accident last year that left her in a coma for three weeks. "Any problems the kids come with," she says, "I've already been there."
She first became involved in South Central in 1988, when, as community affairs director for her real estate company, she read an article about a local teacher and offered him financial help. He declined the money and urged her to help his students instead. Moved by the many hardships they faced, she gave up her six-figure salary, started APCH in a church basement and set out to give the kids a safe haven and resources they had never known. "I shake them and treat them all the way I would treat my own child," says Constance, who also became a foster mother to two students. "I give them everything I can."
It was a natural transition, says Gideon Haimovitz, her only child, from her second marriage. "No one has the ability to talk to the kids like she does," says the 27-year-old chiropractor. And no one is seemingly more fearless. He recalls seeing her quell gang fights with a dozen kids on either side. "She'd step right in the middle and say, 'Hey, I know you and you,' he says. "Then they would say, 'Oh, okay, Mom. Sorry.' "
Today, Constance oversees 44 paid employees and an annual operating budget of $1.6 million—all from private donations, many of which come from such Hollywood celebs as Johnny Carson, who recently contributed $100,000. Will and Jada Pinkett Smith donated a sound board for the center's music studio, and A Different World's Jasmine Guy funded the dance studio.
Nobody is more grateful than the children themselves. Rather than going straight home from school, Autumn Crayon, 14, an aspiring ballerina, used to linger at a crime-ridden neighborhood park. "There's a lot of gang members there," she says, "and they'll shoot you for no reason at all." Had it not been for A Place Called Home, she adds, "I'd be getting into trouble." Miguel Herrera, 20, who has finally been persuaded to give up the gang life, says, "Little by little, by her talking to me, I started believing in myself."
Karen Brailsford in Los Angeles