Community leader helms a family enrichment program that is changing Grove Park!


Earlier this year, I was walking around the Grove Park neighborhood I moved to seven years ago, talking to people in the community like I do every day. I stopped for a moment and thought about the fact that it’s the same neighborhood where my mother got high years ago. She had five children, and I know she loved us. She gave us all she had to give, but she dealt with heroin addiction and mental health issues; I was actually born in state prison and raised by my grandmother. I’m 50 years old now and still dealing with that childhood trauma, which included becoming a mother myself at age 17.

LaTonya Gates is passionate about helping children reach their potential with PAWKids’ afterschool support.
LaTonya Gates is passionate about helping children reach their potential with PAWKids’ afterschool support.

When I started PAWKids in 2015, I recognized that I am who I serve. I’m no different than the child whose father is serving time in prison, whose mother is on drugs. I’ve been there. Right before I got pregnant with my son, Anthony, I was kicked out of DeKalb County high schools. Atlanta Public Schools took me in, and I went through a program called Communities in Schools. I found people who gave me hope—social workers and teachers who wanted better for me and my child. That support extended to my professional life when I began working at Atlanta Youth Academy, where I met people like executive director Chuck Johnston and principal Derek Lockwood and had the chance to start an afterschool program. I eventually moved on to being a program director for Walton Communities. All of those experiences laid the foundation as I worked to launch PAWKids.

I was inspired by the mission of my church, Atlanta Westside Presbyterian, that is serving the community from Buckhead to Bankhead. I followed Chuck, whom I became close to at Atlanta Youth Academy, and he took a great interest in the well-being of my children. He moved from Buckhead to Grove Park to serve the people. Chuck legally adopted me seven years ago, which meant so much because I never knew my real father. Upon moving to Grove Park, I saw a need in the children who lived in a different kind of poverty. Many didn’t have lights or running water, and so many were years behind in their reading. PAWKids started as an afterschool program for those children who needed a safe, clean place to come and get help with their reading comprehension. The program was supported by the historically black Paradise Baptist Church (the “P” in PAWKids) and the predominantly white Atlanta Westside Presbyterian Church (representing the “AW” in the name). We purchased one of the largest trap houses in Grove Park, and while we have not been able to fully renovate it yet, we created a welcoming space with fresh paint, nice tables and more. We initially had five children participate, but I soon realized I couldn’t work with the children without also working with their families.

PAWKids has morphed into a family enrichment center, a behavioral health clinic that focuses on mental health for both children and adults and a food pantry. We purchased two other properties and connected the houses to develop our campus. Today, we serve 50 children and 11 families, and we go deep with them. I have had so many friends from Buckhead who want to get involved and volunteer. In fact, several of them helped us test the first children in the afterschool program so we could understand their academic needs. Help has extended well beyond that, as we have volunteers from Buckhead and Brookhaven join us regularly to work with the local public schools, community policing programs and more. Those volunteers are so important because they understand what keeps a community strong, and they want to see Grove Park become just as strong as the Buckhead community. They want to leave an imprint and show that we can work and live together in these neighboring communities.

I’m honored that my children have decided to work alongside me. Anthony, who graduated from Morehouse College, is our manager of operations and development. My daughter, Larenzia, has her master’s in communication from Mississippi Valley State University and is the manager of children’s enrichment and community outreach. I know they could work anywhere, but it’s amazing that they chose this. I believe that if more black families came together to do something like this for their communities, we would be in a much better place. Buckhead is strong because of the generations who have worked together to make it that way. I love the idea of building one community at a time from the ground up. We’ve started with Grove Park. It’s time to look at things differently and pour into our communities. The work is being done here.


As told to Amy Meadows
PHOTOS: Erik Meadows



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