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'Meant to be' at Lucie's Place 

Rev. Johnette Fitzjohn succeeds founder Penelope Poppers as executive director.

click to enlarge NEW LEADER: Rev. Johnette Fitzjohn is the new executive director of Lucie's Place, a nonprofit outreach program for homeless LGBTQ young adults.
  • NEW LEADER: Rev. Johnette Fitzjohn is the new executive director of Lucie's Place, a nonprofit outreach program for homeless LGBTQ young adults.

Rev. Johnette Fitzjohn, a native of Liberia with decades of experience in pastoral ministry and social service work, is the new executive director of Lucie's Place, the Little Rock nonprofit outreach program for homeless LGBTQ young adults. Fitzjohn succeeds Penelope Poppers, who incorporated Lucie's Place in 2012.

Fitzjohn is an ordained minister and elder in the United Methodist Church, and in addition to over 20 years of working with the church in Liberia and the United States, she also spent eight years in women's outreach work through the ecumenical World Student Christian Federation-Africa Region and the National Student Christian Council of Liberia. She most recently served as the clinical supervisor for Project Hospitality, an interfaith nonprofit in Staten Island, N.Y., that provides housing services to homeless families and individuals. She also worked with Project Hospitality as assistant director of its emergency program for survivors of Hurricane Sandy.

Poppers will soon begin a new job as associate director of development for Planned Parenthood Great Plains, which serves Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. She'll work out of the Little Rock office of the reproductive health care nonprofit.

Poppers said she is able to move on because Lucie's Place — "my baby," she called it — is now a stable organization. She also said it was important to hand over the reins so that it's no longer so closely bound up with her.

"When a lot of people think about Lucie's Place, they just think about me," Poppers said. "Or when they think about me, they just think about Lucie's Place, and it's not really fair either way. ... When people associate only me with Lucie's Place, they're erasing all our volunteers, our staff, all these other people that actually make it happen."

It took Poppers three years to raise enough money to open drop-in services at the nonprofit, named for Lucie Marie Hamilton, a Little Rock transgender woman who died in 2009; Lucie's opened its shelter in 2016. Poppers is proud of the work she put in to bring the nonprofit to the stable organization it is today, which has allowed her to move on from a leadership position in the organization. "I don't pat myself on the back too much, but I can at least acknowledge that I worked to get it to this point, and I don't think I could have successfully transitioned away two years ago," she said.

Lucie's Place's new leader moved to Little Rock in January 2018 to be closer to her daughter and grandchildren. The move ultimately led her to Lucie's Place, which she said is her "dream job." She'd left full-time ministry in 2012, and felt called to work directly with people. Leaving the ministry meant, she said, "I could do more outside of the church, because I felt kind of restricted in a sense. And I haven't looked back since."

Fitzjohn knows what it is like to be temporarily homeless. With help from the World Student Christian Federation, she fled civil-war-torn Liberia in 1994. She was first a refugee in Sierra Leone, West Africa, and then moved to Nairobi, Kenya, where she worked for a year before returning home to Liberia.

Fitzjohn said her experience as a refugee gave her perspective and understanding for the work that Lucie's Place does and the people they serve.

"My country went through war, so I know not just not having a permanent home, but [also] not having a country," Fitzjohn said. "That's hard. ... Through it all, I look back at my life, and that prepared me to be the person I am today. That prepared me to realize that you don't judge people; you've got to know their story, you've got to know their circumstance, you can't take things as they come."

"I feel [Lucie's Place] is where I need to be, where I was meant to be," Fitzjohn said. In her work with the homeless and as a minister, she's seen "the pain. I see the struggles. I hear and I see how people are intentionally blinded to [the struggles of LGBTQ youth], and [people are] closing their ears and not listening. It breaks my heart. And I've got loved ones who are in this same category. My passion has always been women and children and young people, so coming here is just where I'm meant to be."

Poppers said the love for fundraising she developed at Lucie's Place will serve her well at Planned Parenthood. "Without Lucie's Place, I probably wouldn't have been qualified for this job at Planned Parenthood, but through trial and fire and all sorts of different things over the past eight years, I've really developed these strong skills in development and fundraising," she said. "That's a very tangible thing I'm taking away, a new career and a new career path. I love development, and I love raising money. I wouldn't have said that eight years ago when I started Lucie's Place. It was really not the thing I thought about at all, but now that's what I love, and Lucie's Place showed me and taught me that love."

Fitzjohn will also have to do some fundraising: She wants to expand Lucie's Place temporary housing from its eight beds. She also said she wants to work on serving more people in the community and alerting them to the help that Lucie's Place offers. "There are some people who may not be physically homeless, but they're not connected with where they're living," she said. "They could be living in a really bad situation, so that's talking about finding a place that you can connect, finding a place that you feel safe, [and] just [encouraging] people to come make use of this wonderful drop-in center we have here ... and helping people get to the place where they can be self-supported, and have their own space, and feel safe and feel loved."

As Fitzjohn transitions into her new role, she said she looks forward to welcoming the LGBTQ community into the acceptance and compassion that can be found at Lucie's Place. "[The] first thing I said when I met this staff was, 'We're a family,'" she said. "Lucie's Place is a family. So we just need to continue to reach out to our lost family members out there and bring them home. That's how I see it, bring them home."

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