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Giving / A weekly look at those who help

L.A.'s Pied Piper

You've probably never heard of him. But thousands of kids who were led to new lives through education have Gary Gitnick and his Fulfillment Fund to thank.

September 21, 1999

"His father was alcoholic and abusive; his mother was addicted to drugs. The boy joined a gang, which became his family, his support, his reason to exist. By the time he was 12, he was a very successful thief. His school counselor felt the boy was bright and had potential." The fund matched him with a mentor, and a supportive relationship developed. "By the time the boy graduated, he was captain of the high school football team and president of his senior class. He went on to USC undergraduate school, UCLA graduate school and then started his own business. We turned a hoodlum into a taxpayer."

Another story is about a girl who was thrown out of her house after she got pregnant and she was not seen in high school again. "But the school counselor knew this girl had potential, worried about her, and walked the streets of L.A. looking for her after school and on weekends. Six weeks later, she found the girl living in a cardboard box on Skid Row."

The girl was paired with a mentor, had her baby while living with a distant relative, managed to finish high school and attend college on a fund scholarship--"never getting a grade below A-minus in her entire four years of college."

In 1977, the Fulfillment Fund was formed to develop programs that would provide role models and opportunities--first for disabled children and eventually for disadvantaged youngsters of all kinds. By 1983, Gitnick says, the program for disabled children was "on automatic pilot." He still wasn't satisfied. "I looked around our city and saw kids whose daily lives exposed them to violence, drugs and gangs. I saw too many young lives being wasted. I wondered what would make a difference for them."

The mentoring idea slowly evolved and expanded. It now includes a variety of services to students: college and career counseling, drug education, paid internships, tutoring and the Princeton Review preparatory program, which prepares them for college entrance exams.

Gitnick credits Andrea Cockrum, the fund's chief executive for 11 years, as the one who "makes it all happen so successfully." She credits him as being "tremendously charismatic, energetic . . . the man who just takes care of everyone."

A Fateful Lunch Set Him Straight

Gitnick was once one of those kids who needed a role model. And he remembers how little encouragement it took for him to change course--from a kid who "knew nothing and was going nowhere" to someone who graduated from college and medical school.

His father suffered from chronic lung disease and was "always sick." His mother ran a grocery store, assisted by her two sons. When Gitnick reached eighth grade, he recalls, he was a lackluster student with no plans to change his ways. Then came "The Lunch"--a single afternoon adventure that Gitnick says changed his life.

A teacher selected him as a delegate to the annual Rotary event, at which one child from each public school was allowed to dine and mingle with successful businessmen of the city. "It was held at a lavish club. My first opportunity to see chandeliers, overstuffed chairs and more silver on the table than I knew what to do with. I grew up using one fork and one knife."

The afternoon made a "lasting, lifetime impression" on Gitnick, who still seems to remember every moment of it. "The men pounded home a message I never forgot: 'If you work hard enough toward a goal, you can achieve it. You can be like us.' "

He began working harder to get good grades. He applied to 17 colleges and remembers being rejected by all of them, except one. The University of Chicago accepted Gitnick with a scholarship. To pay for rent, books and food, he held multiple jobs--at one point working in the morgue, the library and a lab.

He proved that he knows how to get what he wants and isn't afraid to work hard for it. He also, apparently, can't resist gently twisting an arm to get there.

How come the reclusive Rupert Murdoch was willing to headline last year's fund-raiser? "He's my patient," Gitnick simply says.

Bettijane Levine can be reached at bettijane.levine@latimes.com.

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