“That basketball court actually saved a lot of kids’ lives.” -Ansara “Lisa” Fifita
For the most diehard of fans, sports can be something akin to a spiritual activity. For bigtime players, their sport is a way of life. But for a group of kids in Hawthorne, California, one sport became their lifeline: basketball.
“We always said we were going to make our home the home that our kids want to bring their friends to. Early on we decided that we’re going to do that; that’s why we invested in a basketball court. And that basketball court actually saved a lot of kids’ lives.”
That’s how Ansara “Lisa” Fifita describes the basketball court outside her small California home. The 1940s house she and her husband Brian moved into 17 years ago wasn’t just the place they raised their three children. It became home for many, many more.
The Fifita’s built that basketball court as a safe space for the kids and their friends to hang out. Their Hawthorne neighborhood was prone to gang violence, a cause near and dear to their hearts after Brian’s nephew was killed several years ago. But Lisa and Brian didn’t just invite the neighborhood kids over for a ball game. They invited them in, cooked meals for them, and even let kids’ and their families move in when they needed a place to stay. Their house lovingly became referred to as “the YMCA.”
“A lot of the parents actually liked it because if they were ever looking for their kids, they always knew where to come first to look for them,” Lisa said. “We can’t control what’s happening around us, but we just try to keep the kids as safe as we can with what we can provide.”
THE OLD HOUSE credit: HGTV
Before you think the Fifitas are wealthy, that’s not the cause of their generosity. Lisa works for an accounting firm and her husband drives for FedEx, but they arrange their schedules so someone is always home to take care of the kids. Their home is less than 900 square feet in size, but they always find a way to make room for others: whether that means lining the garage with blankets and pillows, or the kids giving up space in their own bedrooms.
“My parents have always taught us to have open arms and to always love one another. And it’s amazing to see how many people my parents have helped out. It’s also taught me a lot to help others as well,” said Nancy Fifita, the youngest of the three siblings.
Lisa says they have lost count of how many families have stayed with them over the years, but says about 30 kids spend the summer with them each year. Over thirty people sharing a house that was built 80 years ago is bound to do some damage, especially when many of them are teenage boys.
“Our kitchen and our bath absolutely endured the most wear and tear because that’s where we’re cooking a lot of the meals and the kids are taking showers,” Lisa described, listing plumbing as a top issue.
The Fifitas are happy to sacrifice their space for the good of others, and it was one of the kids they helped who wanted to return the good will. One of their nieces whose family had lived with them during a rough patch nominated the Fifitas for HGTV’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and last fall they showed up to renovate the family’s home.
THE NEW HOUSE credit: HGTV
“Our reactions were crazy,” Nancy said of the moment the Extreme Makeover crew showed up outside their door. “When we found out, I was so blessed to be able to run out and run into their arms.”
Alongside hundreds of volunteers, the crew nearly doubled the size of the Fifita’s home, giving them more space in the kitchen and living room to entertain, redoing their beloved basketball court and even creating a bunk room with extra beds for their many guests.
“We still can’t believe it’s ours. We just wake up and everything is so beautiful. Everything works properly,” Lisa said. “Some days we’ll sit there and just look around and be like, ‘Wow, you remember when we were all squished in one room?’”
What means the most to the Fifitas is how their updated home will enable them to help others more. They’ve already had a group of kids who used to live at their house come over for a reunion, some of whom showed up to help renovate their house.
“We keep in touch with them, but we didn’t know that they would go out of their way to come back,” Lisa said. “They all came down and just hung out and they were just laughing, like they have this nice new and upgraded YMCA.”
The kids the Fifitas have helped over the years have become like family, and their house is their second home. Lisa says that people are quick to judge the kind of kids they’ve helped over the years as “bad kids,” but that most of them just need a little extra support as both of their parents work to make ends meet and aren’t always home. That’s where the Fifitas have stepped in, and she hopes others who hear their story will follow suit in choosing welcoming over judgment.
“Especially with everything that’s going around now, I think if everybody just took some time to help each other out–because we don’t know what their circumstances are–it would help a lot,” Lisa said. “You will find that they end up being at their best potential because they know that there’s people there that support them and help them.”
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