Every neighborhood — whether it struggles or not — needs a LaTonya.
Because of her upbringing and the many personal challenges she has faced, LaTonya Gates-Johnston has a heart for families — and especially children — in difficult situations. This makes her the perfect person to lead PAWKids, an enrichment program for at-risk children and their families in Grove Park. It also makes this Grove Park Renewal home resident a valuable addition to the Grove Park community.
LaTonya’s mother was a heroin addict, and LaTonya was born in a prison infirmary and raised by her grandmother and cousin for the first ten years of her life. She was abused by a family member as a pre-teen after returning to her mother’s home.
Like many children who have experienced multiple traumas, LaTonya had difficult years as a teen. She was expelled from all DeKalb County public high schools, became a teenage mother, suffered from depression, and attempted suicide multiple times. Thanks to Communities in Schools, she was introduced to an alternative learning program that helped her put her life back on track before it was permanently derailed. She graduated from St. Luke’s Academy at age 18 and went on to attend DeKalb Technical College.
“I’m very open about where I came from. All of this contributes to who I am today. It’s part of my story,” said LaTonya. “But my story includes hope because of the people who invested in me.”
LaTonya is an active member of Atlanta Westside Presbyterian Church. Atlanta Westside members have a heart for the inner city in general, and Grove Park in particular. Over a decade ago, members were encouraged to choose to live in a distressed neighborhood and invest in building community and friendships there. While visiting Westsiders who had already moved to Grove Park, LaTonya fell in love with the neighborhood.
LaTonya, who had served as program director of an after-school program in Walton Communities in Cobb County, was encouraged to open a similar program in Grove Park. Both members of her church and Pastor Charles Harper of Paradise Missionary Baptist Church in Grove Park saw the value that the program could bring to the neighborhood, especially if it was led by a strong black woman. In fact, the PAW in PAWKids stands for Paradise Atlanta Westside, in homage to the two churches who helped make PAWKids a reality.
“PAWKids started as a Bible study I held in Chuck Johnston’s backyard in 2012,” said LaTonya. “But we knew early on that we needed dedicated space for the kids. A safe place. At the time I was living in Edgewood, but I knew I’d end up living in Grove Park.”
Grove Park Renewal and the PAW House
There was a house on Hollowell Parkway, right at the entrance to Grove Park — the actual park itself — that was an active trap house. But it was for sale.
“The place reeked of crack,” said LaTonya. “There were squatters living upstairs and prostitutes living downstairs. There was a room for peep shows with a stripper pole! But I knew we could redeem and renew that house.”
Grove Park Renewal purchased the house that would be PAWKids’ home, and then sold it back to LaTonya at zero interest for five years in 2015. Church members from Atlanta Westside and Paradise, along with community members, all came together to help renovate the house.
The PAW House became an active part of the Grove Park community from day one.
“On the first day the house was open, two of the neighborhood prostitutes came and sat on the big front porch, and we talked,” said LaTonya. “They are friends of mine now.”
The PAWKids program is holistic and involves the parents as well as the students. Jennifer Foster has three children in the program and sings its praises.
“My children have been opened up to opportunities that I may otherwise not be able to show them,” says Jennifer. “I feel so good knowing my kids are in a safe, secure environment after school. And beyond blessed they know and love Christ.”
LaTonya opened the PAW House to the community and held many meetings and activities there. But it didn’t take long before it became obvious that a second site dedicated to the community was needed.
Grove Park Renewal Helps PAWKids Expand
In 2018, PAWKids acquired the property next door to the PAW House with the help of Grove Park Renewal. It is now known as The Gathering Place and is a community hub for health and wellness services, Bible studies, and community meetings. But if you ask LaTonya what’s her favorite part of the house, she smiles like a kid in a candy store.
“The kitchen. Definitely the kitchen,” she says. “I knew it would be nice. I wanted it to be nice. But I didn’t know it would be this nice!”
Currently a group of middle- and high-school girls meets there for a small group Bible study and cooking club. LaTonya hopes to offer cooking classes so that the community can learn some simple ways to cook more healthy food, and also perhaps taste foods from other cultures.
“When you do a lot of your grocery shopping at the Family Dollar, it’s hard to know what to cook your family that’s healthy and easy and different,” said LaTonya.
In 2019, the mortgages for both the PAWKids house and the Gathering Place were paid off. Justin Bleeker and Grove Park Renewal have pledged to use that money to renew more houses specifically for PAWKids families — before they are forced out of the neighborhood due to gentrification.
Read more about LaTonya’s move into Grove Park and the Grove Park Renewal/PAWKids partnership in part 2 of this article.
Want to help a PAWKids family stay in Grove Park and in the PAWKids program? Click here and donate to a PAWKids family house!