In a perfect world, we’d have more folks like Lisa Fitzpatrick.
If we did, you probably wouldn’t find shell casings from gunfire just a few feet away from the basketball court at the Apex Youth Center where Fitzpatrick is co- director.
And there would be no need for the two signs on the door of the facility.
One reads, “No Guns.”
The other says, “No Drugs.”
But Apex Youth Center, opened by Fitzpatrick in 2010, isn’t in a perfect world. It sits at Simon Bolivar Avenue and St. Andrew Street — an area considered one of the most dangerous, crime-ridden neighborhoods in the city.
Since it opened, more than 460 children and young adults have walked through its doors to play sports and games, escaping from the madness of the neighborhood.
“They are always looking for a safe place,” Fitzpatrick said. “It gives our kids a chance to keep the noise of the streets out for just that moment.”
On Saturday, the place became a little safer.
Dick’s Sporting Goods presented a check for $119,600 to the youth center, part of the company’s new Sports Matter program, which has funded more than 180 youth teams across the country to help overcome financial challenges caused by budget cuts in youth sports programs.
Like the name suggests, the folks at Dick’s believe sports do indeed matter.
Studies agree. Student-athletes score higher in a wide range of social skills, like resolving conflict, managing emotions and setting goals. And a study by Up2Us Education found that children who play sports are four times more likely to attend college.
“There will be a decline in youth sports because the funding is not there and we saw that as a potential crisis,” said Colleen Wilson, community relations manager for Dick’s. “We believe that keeping kids in sports ultimately helps develop lifelong lessons that carry through their future.”
Fitzpatrick, 51, wants to make sure the youngsters at her center live long enough to have a future. One of her main goals is to teach kids how to resolve conflicts peacefully.
Thanks to the donation, a wall will be built between the basketball court and St. Andrew Street. As Fitzpatrick put it, it’s “to separate the kids from the bullets.”
The basketball court also will be resurfaced and eventually will have a cover over top, to keep out elements like the beaming heat, rain … and maybe even bullets.
The donation also will allow the center to be open for longer. A lack of funding had caused hours to be cut.
Fitzpatrick learned just how important that is in May. That day, some youngsters came to the center, only to find the doors locked. If they had been open, chances are one of them wouldn’t have been shot and killed just three blocks away later that day.
“We will be able to have a full-time staff member here, and we will begin immediately — seven days a week, 365 days a year,” Fitzpatrick said.
That announcement drew a round of applause from the children who attended Saturday’s ceremony.
Count Keith Singleton, 20, among the ones who welcomes the additional hours. He prefers playing ball there rather than at a public park.
“Here, you have to sign in and sign out,” he said. “You know everybody who is here. In a park, you don’t know what’s going on. You could be out there playing with two people who had an altercation, and gunshots may start popping off. It’s more structured here. In New Orleans, you don’t have many good places to go. This gives us a good place.”
Armand Goodrich has seen the advantages of the youth center in his neighborhood.
“Before, the kids were hanging out fighting, but now they have come here and they have a good outlook on life,” Goodrich said.
And that’s all Fitzpatrick wants: a chance for kids in the neighborhood to have a good life.
She almost didn’t.
Fitzpatrick — Ms. Lisa, as the youth affectionately call her — was shot 30 years ago as part of a gang initiation.
“It was shoot-a-random-person day, and I guess I won,” she recalled. “But the blessing was that right before the shots rang out, I saw my shooters. It was two young children, so young that they both struggled trying to pick up the gun.
“As the shots rang out, their eyes were filled with terror and fear and horror at what they had done. They were child soldiers who had been recruited into a war they didn’t start. At that moment, I realized that the victim isn’t always who you think it is. Sometimes the victim is the one carrying the gun.”
The bullet only grazed her face.
But that experience, which occurred in Oklahoma City, sparked Fitzpatrick’s passion for helping keep inner-city youth off the streets. She moved from California to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to help restore the city.
The death of 20-year-old Donato Quinn in 2009 sparked the opening of the center.
“I knew then that I couldn’t just stand on this side of the tape anymore and not do anything,” she said. “Enough is enough.”
She quit her job and opened the center. It was one of the easiest choices she has ever made.
She turned and pointed at the youngsters, dribbling and shooting jumpers under the scorching June summer sun on this Saturday afternoon.
“Look at them,” she said. “Those are my blessings. It was no choice at all.”