One of the young men participating in her career readiness classes with Rockdale Juvenile Court was shot with two of his friends after the trio had attempted burglary at 4 a.m. in Rockdale county. Karen can’t help but wonder if there had been some type of recreational center or organization that was available would these young men still be alive?

The LEAADS Centers, formerly (Law Enforcement Agencies Assisting in the Development of Students) has been providing mentorship, career readiness services for youth in alternative schools and court systems throughout Georgia since 2004. In all that time, the program has expanded —  LEAADS hosts one of the largest summer camps in the city limits — and its mission has morphed to meet the community’s growing needs.

The program’s founder, Karen Foote, a Boston native and former law enforcement agent, has facilitated community-based, school-based, and court-based programs throughout the South Gwinnett Cluster and GIVE Center East schools for the past 9 years, but Foote hopes and prays that she and her staff will be in a large new facility by November of 2020.

“I’ve been working with the Snellville City Council, and they have been instrumental in helping me move forward by bringing different partners to the table to show them the need,” Karen said. She has her sights set on a large building in the city limits and will launch a capital campaign in January 2020 to celebrate 10 years of service and to raise the required $2.5 million to secure the building and renovations. 

Karen has big plans for the new youth center which will be used as a social and recreational Center. The new LEAADS Center will support opportunities for youth to develop their physical, social, emotional, and cognitive abilities, while experiencing opportunities to lead, participate in community engagement and outreach, entrepreneurship and develop friendships.

The LEAADS Youth Center will offer organized instructional programs for physical activities such as dance, yoga, and martial arts and for academic and arts programs such as science, crafts, dance, music and theater. The new LEAADS Centers will also offers opportunities for unstructured activities such as game playing, socializing, club meetings, and outdoor play.

One of the unique focuses of the new LEAADS Centers will be the family development center. The Family Development Center will provide opportunities for family’s members to access on-site high-quality wrap around services such as food, housing vouchers, clothing, transportation, job training, financial literacy and but the buck doesn’t stop with the youth. Along with their teen pregnancy and pregnancy prevention classes, the LEAADS Centers will offer also offer parenting programs and more. 

The new LEAADS Centers will also house an Evening Reporting Center geared strictly to assist at-risk youth and juvenile offenders with immediate access to mental health providers, therapeutic services and high-quality wrap around services. Youth need communities, business partners and schools that support opportunities for them to be successful and it is our primary goal to build those communities.

As they prepare for the move, Karen is working with her staff to rebrand the organization. Leading that initiative is her college-aged son, Eric. He’s been an instrumental leader and role model of the LEAADS Centers since he was six years old and his mom is proud to now introduce him as her business partner and Creative Director. 

“I’ve always seen my son as a creative leader and I’m very proud of him. I believe by providing Eric with the opportunity to work so closely with me, attend business meetings and provide valuable input, it has provided the discipline, structure and commitment necessary to launch his own graphic design business, Mauve Studios. It is vitally important that as parents, we celebrate our children daily and tell them we love them. So many youth are searching for validation, respect, a place of belonging and most important ‘HOPE’. Hope that someone will see them, someone will notice, someone will care . . . I thank God every day for Eric, and I could not have done any of this without him,” Karen said. “I would not have been able to expend and serve over 250 youth, without my son’s professionalism, patience and commitment to excellence. He challenges me to be better.”

Karen considers herself blessed to have been placed around so many supportive people “who genuinely cared” about her during her formative years. Her life hasn’t been all smooth sailing, though. 

When Karen was still a girl, her mother passed away, and she had to grow up fast to raise her two younger sisters, who were ages nine and three at the time. “When you lose your mom at an early age, your priorities shift, you learn to put others first, you learn what it means to ‘Serve’. I’ve been taking care of children since I was very young, and I thank God for my family. I’m so grateful that my mom instilled in me a strong spiritual foundation and the wisdom of discernment. Armed with these tools, I learned to find my voice and the courage to seek out opportunities and people that helped prepare me for this journey,” Karen admits.

Karen’s, first introduction to the criminal justice field began with a career in the Boston Juvenile Court clerk’s office. There, she would meet and speak with family after family while processing case after case of heart-wrenching paperwork on juvenile runaways, habitual offenders and children entering the foster care system due to being neglected or abused. Karen realized, quickly, that someone had to do more — she had to do more. She wanted to have a positive influence and impact on the lives of these innocent youth so that the cycle would not continue. “That was when I made a conscious decision that I wanted to work with children. I just didn’t know in what capacity,” Karen said.

The “what” came after Karen moved to Georgia and continued working in law enforcement. After hearing a criminology professor speak about opportunities to work with youth in the public-school systems, Karen decided that was the career path for her. Out of that initiative, she formed the LEAADS Mentor program, where she recruited and trained law enforcement officers to mentor youth in the schools.

“Judges, police, parole officers, and the community were many times disconnected with the issues youth face today. Many people believe the times have not changed but due to social media, today’s youth have access to everything and anything at their fingertips. Not properly monitored, young people are finding themselves in lots of trouble,” Karen said. 

Through the years the LEAADS Centers has evolved to encompass academic afterschool programs, summer camps, Girls Coding Project in partnership with Georgia Tech mentors, teen staffing training and job placement, job shadowing, internships, and middle school leadership Institute 2020 to name a few new initiatives.

“A few years ago, we had the honor of taken a group of students from GIVE EAST, alternative school on their first field trip to Georgia Tech Campus with hopes of expanding their horizons. Sometimes, youth just need exposure to awaken something in them. When adults raise their expectations of our youth and hold them accountable, many youth begin to see themselves differently. Many of our former students have had the opportunity to work at the LEAADS Centers, others have gone on to college or working and seeing them in the community always warms my heart. One of the young ladies, I met at the GIVE Center several years ago during my girls’ mentor group, continues to be a major part of my life and our programs. She continues to work and provide mentorship for our young ladies,” Karen explained.

With the new building, it is our hope that the LEAADS Centers expansion will become a beacon of hope to the youth and families in the community as we increase work with the homeless youth and families, continue to provide safe havens for juvenile runaways, teen mothers and fathers. The new building cannot get here fast enough for Karen, who was recently left speechless by the news that one of the young men participating in her career readiness classes with Rockdale Juvenile Court was shot with two of his friends after the trio had attempted burglary at 4 a.m. in Rockdale county. She can’t help but wonder if there had been some type of recreational center or organization that was available would these young men still be alive?

“We as a community have to do more. We have to show our youth that their LIVES DO MATTER. We are all aware of the problems so let’s focus more time, energy and resources on solutions. Let’s stop providing resources for duplicate services and develop more strategic plans for ensuring ALL our youth have bright futures,” Karen said passionately. “We tend to put on our resources towards those who have shown serious problems rather than taking preventative measures. That’s the reality of it. There’s real urgency. So, we’re trying to figure out how to partner and how to come together.”

Karen welcomes local business owners, faith-based organizations, law enforcement agencies, community leaders, advocates, schools, families and youth to volunteer. 

“The LEAADS Centers has a wide range of volunteer opportunities available, If you would like to be involved or make a donation, contribute to the “Our Youth Matter Capital Campaign 2020 please contact the LEAADS Centers at info@leaadslcg.org. or 770.919.5633,” Karen shares. Additionally, she welcomes sponsors of all levels to help raise funds for her ongoing capital campaign. 

“When you wake up every day excited about your work, you realize very quickly it’s not work, it’s purpose,” said Karen, a doctoral candidate. “Finding my purpose has allowed me to break barriers, believe greater and trust God, totally.”