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    The late-summer air is no longer air. Just a broth set at simmer. Maybe that’s what’s keeping the kids away on this Tuesday. “There’s not one single kid,” René Douglas says, a bit bewildered. She sits on the concrete stoop of the Baxter Community Center, a 70-year-old brick building on the northern edge of the Beecher Terrace public-housing complex in the West End Russell neighborhood.

    Inside, popcorn has been popped. Two basketballs await a pick-up game on the court. Douglas likes the center noisy — laughing and hollering and music. It’s the day after Labor Day. Maybe kids are just out of their routines, Douglas reasons, because it’s now nearly 3:30 in the afternoon and still nobody.

    Douglas has worked with children nearly her entire adult life. She has run the Baxter Community Center for the last 12 years, organizing sports teams and chess clubs, meals and nature programs, arts classes and conflict-resolution programs, Zumba and activities for seniors. The 49-year-old grew up not far from Beecher Terrace. She knows poverty and believes circumstance does not have to design the future. “I was a project girl who took ballet and piano lessons,” she says, rubbing her knee that’s locked in a brace due to a decades-old cheerleading injury. “Because my mom and grandma made sure of that. They were intentional. I want to do that for (these kids). If I can make them grow, learn, pursue something a little more than this four-square block, I’ve done my job.”

    Douglas loves Russell. But it’s not the easiest place to grow attached to children. She has been startled by gunshots while sitting at her desk, has walked up to a murder scene and known whom homicide detectives were collected around. “You miss their smile. They weren’t perfect by any stretch, but they were people,” she says. “And they mattered to me. I’ve gotten to see the side of young adults most people don’t see. In here, they are respectful. I get the love back that I give.”

    A 17-year-old in a white T-shirt hops the steps into the center.

    “You go to school today?” she asks.

    “Yes, ma’am.” He nods and smiles.

    He go to school today?” she asks, referring the boy’s friend.

    “I don’t know. Didn’t see him.”

    “Miss René” or “Auntie” — that’s how Douglas is known here. She’s a second mother, an advocate for the hundreds who’ve passed through. So many photocopied pictures of children occupy her office walls that they now spill into the hallway, next to trophies and school acceptance letters earned by what she calls her “center babies.”

    The Baxter Community Center is in transition, though. That means Douglas is too. With a $264-million renovation of Beecher Terrace underway, nearly 300 families have relocated. About 300 remain. Tears well in Douglas’ eyes just thinking about it.

    She recently got a call from another community center that needed paperwork on some siblings who had moved out of Beecher Terrace. She was quick to relay what foods and activities the kids like and how the one boy has a hot temper, so when he balls his fists — that’s a sign; please, don’t let it escalate and kick him out — get him to a quiet place, let him read a sports book or magazine, and he’ll be OK in 10 minutes.

    Douglas recognizes a mother from Beecher Terrace across the street. “Where the babies at?” she shouts.

    “They’ll be out in a minute!” the woman replies, a wide grin across her face.

    By next fall, all Beecher Terrace residents will have moved to make way for mixed-income housing. (Some can move back if they want.) Baxter serves kids from all over Russell, so the nest won’t empty. But it may grow quieter. In the meantime, Douglas leaves each departing family, each elderly woman and man she’s checked in on every day for years, with the same message: “You know where to find me.”

    This originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine as the Portrait. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photo by Jessica Ebelhar, jessicaebelhar.com

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