PAWkids founder rises above past to serve community

LaTonya Gates can’t imagine where she would be without Claudia Kemp. Gates refers to Kemp as her grandmother, though there is no blood relation. Today Gates honors her grandmother’s legacy as the founding director of a nonprofit and as a leader and beacon of hope in her community.

Gates, 47, was born in a prison, addicted to heroin. The prison called Kemp, a woman Gates’ mother knew from the neighborhood, and gave her 48 hours to pick up Gates before she would become a ward of the state. Kemp arrived with a padded crate, all she had, and took Gates home. Kemp had her own three biological children, but also raised Gates and her four siblings, and seven other children from the neighborhood.

“My grandmother only had a second-grade education, she was a sharecropper and worked the fields,” recalled Gates. “She couldn’t give us much, but she loved us well and taught us to serve our neighborhood.”

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Gates had learning disabilities and was kicked out of DeKalb County Schools for bad behavior. She turned to Communities in Schools, a drop-out prevention organization. Despite having her first child, Anthony, at age 18, Gates graduated at the top of her class. Becoming a mother put her future into focus.

“I decided the buck stopped there,” said Gates. “My son wouldn’t struggle the ways I had, and he would not go to prison like my mom and siblings. He would have a different life.”

Gates has been a member at Atlanta Westside Presbyterian Church since 2007. In 2014, she listened intently as Pastor Walter Henegar spoke of his vision for taking church beyond four walls. He called it “from Buckhead to Bankhead,” referring to the disparity between the wealthy and poor communities. The message lit a spark within Gates. The pastor’s vision became her own.

“I couldn’t understand how we on the Westside share the 30318 ZIP code with Buckhead, yet we have homes with no water, so much homelessness, squatters, the second lowest ranking school in the state – much different than when you cross the tracks into Buckhead. I had an idea to bring people together from different socioeconomic backgrounds to bridge the gap, then empower my neighborhood by leading resources where they don’t exist.”

When Gates pitched her plan for a nonprofit she called PAWkids, named after Paradise Baptist, the oldest Black church in Grove Park, and Atlanta Westside Presbyterian, to Pastor Henegar, he gave her $70,000 to launch.

“I have been loved unconditionally at my church, but I was shocked that he had so much faith in me,” said Gates. “We all have privilege. As a Black woman, mine is to go to my community and provide the resources they need to survive and thrive. My church made that possible.”

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

In the early days of PAWkids, Gates was also pointed toward Danny Wuerrfel, famed football player and Heisman trophy winner who is now the executive director of Desire Street Ministries, a Christian charity that revitalizes under-resourced neighborhoods through spiritual and community development and provides coaching and support for ministry leaders.

Credit: Picasa

Credit: Picasa

“When I first met LaTonya and heard her mission I told her, ‘if my board doesn’t believe in you, I do,’” said Wuerrfel. “It takes no time to sense her passion, her electricity, and leadership capabilities. I was so impressed by her calling, talents, and heart. She has become a great partner to Desire Street, a great friend and encouragement. We’re really proud of her.”

Through Desire Street, Gates has been coached on leadership and a variety of nonprofit management skills.

Gates operates three buildings within PAWkids. PAWHouse is an enrichment after school program, which provides everything from camps and trips, to tutoring and counseling for children. The Gathering Place provides a family enrichment program and a free health clinic. It’s a place where community members can go do laundry, attend a Bible study, or even a free therapy group. Claudia’s House, named for Gates’ beloved grandmother, is a pantry which provides free food to the community.

A recent coup for PAWkids is the purchase of a food truck for Claudia’s House, which will be especially beneficial to community members who are elderly, or those without a car. The truck will meet people where they are, provide free hygiene bags and food, with an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

There is a mural of Kemp, who was Black, on the food truck. There’s also a painting of a white woman, named Beverly Jean Pipe, who died in 2018 and was known for giving back in many ways, including volunteerism.

“One of Beverly’s family members heard about PAWkids and gave us the money from Beverly’s foundation to afford the food truck,” said Gates. “The two women on the truck, Claudia and Beverly, would have never met during their lives. But that Black woman and that white woman – they left a legacy of loving their communities and I will honor them both.”


If you would like to learn more about PAWkids, visit