Debrah Constance, 48, once a real estate executive, is now the leader of a gang.
She's even got the name of the gang tattooed around her wrist: A-P-C-H.
It stands for "A Place Called Home."
Two years ago, Constance left her job at a Beverly Hills real estate firm to start a safe house for students at Jefferson High School in South-Central Los Angeles. About 40 of them signed up.
Since its opening, more than 400 young men and women have passed through the doors of A Place Called Home, now a nonprofit corporation housed at the Bethel Church of Christ on East Adams Boulevard. Constance, a Venice resident, makes her living now as the safe house's executive director, raising more than $300,000 a year in corporate grants to keep the center going.
Here, the young people, most of whom are current or former gang members, put aside their worries about the perils of the streets and let their guard down for a little while. Would-be rivals play computer games, exercise on weightlifting machines and work with tutors to study for their high school equivalency test.
Constance, who describes herself as a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, a cancer survivor and a high school dropout, says she decided to devote herself to helping Jefferson students after spending years as the community affairs director of Jon Douglas Real Estate.
She had been in charge of donating tens of thousands of dollars to local charities when she read a newspaper article about Roland Ganges, an enthusiastic advanced-placement chemistry teacher at Jefferson High. She called to give a donation, but Ganges told her: Don't offer money. Offer your time.
She did, and helped create several programs that teamed up real estate brokers with students. Together, they participated in an AIDS walk, raised money to combat alcoholism and worked with the homeless.
"A connection was really all the children needed, a connection with another human being," Constance said, "and it became like an obsession for me."
Constance soon decided to quit the real estate business, with the blessing of her boss (he gave her six months' severance pay), and get more directly involved in social service work.
Her first thought, she said, was to apply for a job at a public television station. During her interview, she was asked by an executive at KCET what she wanted to do with her life.
"All I really want is to set up a safe house across from Jefferson High," Constance said. "And he told me, 'You can do it.'
"I had never had a dream," she said. "I don't think anyone had ever told me before that I could have a dream."
Constance said she believes her job as the director of A Place Called Home allows her to give young people the same kind of chances. She says she tells them, just as the TV executive told her, "You can do it."
For instance, she is trying to get Donald "Ray-Ray" Edwards, 13, a small-framed boy, into jockey school. In December, she found Odell Hodges, 17, a job at Noah's Bagels in Brentwood. He commutes to the job by bus, two hours each way. Three other members of A Place Called Home have successfully passed high school equivalency tests.
"Kids who participate [in A Place Called Home] are genuinely interested in making things better for themselves," said Esther Walling, a college counselor at Jefferson. "They know how to find the support they need."
Several recent Jefferson graduates volunteer at the center, as do some of Walling's peer counselors at the high school. Sometimes when Walling can't get in touch with a student on campus, she'll leave a message at Constance's center.
Constance has a few simple house rules that she says makes her center work: no bigotry, no guns, no alcohol, no drugs and, most recently, no gang I.D.s--no gang talk, tagging or hand signs.
One recent recruit, Jose Canela, 18, a gang member, said he is willing to follow the rules because Constance and the members of her staff give him respect.
"We are nice to them because they are nice to us," Canela said.
Ignacio Gallegos, 16, whose three older brothers were killed in incidents of gang violence, also said he is willing to respect the rules of the house.
"The first day I walked in here, Debrah gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek," Ignacio recalled, "and at first I was like: 'What is she doing ?' "
Now, he is a regular at A Place Called Home, and sometimes leads the Gangsters Anonymous meeting, a program modeled on the 12-step program more commonly used to beat addiction to alcohol and drugs.
Constance said administering the center has not been easy. A Place Called Home has outgrown the church where it is housed, and funds are hard to come by.
The center--with expenses that include rent, salaries for Constance and her six employees, books and food--costs $30,000 a month to run.
But you'll hear no complaints from Constance.
"I feel like the luckiest person in the world to be able to do what I do," she said.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Today's focus is on Debrah Constance, who founded a "safe house" for students at Jefferson High.
To get involved in her effort, call "A Place Called Home" at (213) 232-7653.