Paige Fitz lost her father to drug addiction when she was 9. Two years later, her mother died of addiction-related ailments even though she had stopped using drugs and become a counselor.
The pain of losing her parents did not ease until Fitz gave birth to a daughter when she was 20.
But it was not long before the young woman - who at 25 was pregnant with her second child and still uncertain about her future - realized that she was repeating the cycle of dysfunction that had destroyed her parents.
With the help of a mentor, Fitz took control of her life, planning for an education in accounting, financial security and a home of her own.
"It wasn't until someone sat me down and talked to me that I realized that I was digging myself into a deep hole," said Fitz, who is now 30 and owns a house in Baltimore's Sandtown neighborhood.
Fitz shares her success story - besides raising her two daughters as a single mother, Fitz works as a bookkeeper and is a full-time accounting student at Morgan State University - with young women in her neighborhood. About a year ago, she created GEMS - Finding Jewels in Youth, a group that meets weekly to talk about growing up, setting goals and staying out of trouble.
Fitz recently learned that she is one of eight city residents who will receive grants worth $48,750 each from the Open Society Institute-Baltimore to run their community-oriented programs full time. For Fitz, the grant means that she can quit her job and focus on GEMS, which helps about 15 young women.
"I just saw the need, and they keep coming," Fitz said before a recent meeting of the group. She makes members set goals and tries to help them avoid the mistakes she made.
OSI's community fellows program has been in existence for a decade and has awarded grants to nearly 100 residents, said Debra Rubino, a spokeswoman for the organization founded by financier George Soros. Rubino said that many of those fellows are still working in the city, "continuing to bring their energy and ideas to social change."
The new class of fellows, including Fitz, will be formally introduced today and will include individuals who will train foster children to advocate for themselves within the state's behemoth social services system, create a land trust for community-managed open space, and work to promote social and economic justice among low-wage workers.
"Our fellows are passionate, committed individuals with diverse interests, but each has a realistic vision for improving Baltimore," said OSI-Baltimore director Diana Morris in a written statement announcing the new fellows. "Their projects will make an important difference in communities across the city during the 18 months of their fellowships and beyond."
At GEMS meetings, Fitz starts with a prayer and an admonition to "turn off all cell phones." The group meets at 5:30 p.m. Thursdays at the New Song Art and Worship Center in Sandtown. At a recent meeting, the group took time to review their "SWOTs" - Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Many members listed "boys" as a weakness and "the devil" as a threat.
Teaching confidence to the group is important to Fitz and her GEMS partner, Karen Dabney, who say that a lack of confidence can lead young women to make foolish decisions, including dating the wrong boy and putting off plans to attend college. Fitz and Dabney also take the group to plays and other cultural events. They introduce members to new cuisines - they sampled Indian food recently - and take emergency calls day and night.
"This is such a blessing," Fitz said of the OSI grant and the opportunity to expand GEMS. "Now someone else doesn't have to go through the same choices that I had to go through. They can learn from me."