BROOKSVILLE — For two years, La'Shawn Rush has dreamed about creating a safe place for Hernando County's middle and high school students to hang out and be productive.
She envisions hands-on programs in the areas of media, entertainment, entrepreneurship, education, fashion, music and the arts. Students would work together to learn as they create. On the weekends, the place would transform into Club Ignite, where students could dance to live bands — rock on Fridays, hip-hop on Saturdays.
It would be a constructive alternative to mashing video game controllers or loitering aimlessly, said Rush, 36.
"We want to give students the feeling that they have a voice in the community, and not just a voice, but a way to give back," she said.
The married mother of five had her children ask classmates if they would come to a youth center if one opened. She talked to high-schoolers and members of the youth ministry at her church.
"They were excited," Rush recalled. "They were like, 'We need this. We want this.' "
That lit the fire under her to make Ignite Youth Inc. a reality, she said.
Rush registered with the state last month as a nonprofit charitable organization, leased a small office on Sunshine Grove Road, and has been working to rally support and raise money to buy a centrally located building to house the center.
She created a website where visitors can donate by credit card or PayPal. And she has landed some big names to speak at a fundraising luncheon this month: state Rep. Rob Schenck, county Commissioner John Druzbick and Sheriff Al Nienhuis.
Rush says she will eventually draw a salary as the center's director, with as many as nine or 10 other employees. Her husband, Troy, and stepfather, Jeffrey Walton, are for now the only board members.
The couple's financial history could give potential donors pause, however.
In 2005, the Rushes filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy to get out from under about $52,000 in debt.
Last May, the five-bedroom Weeki Wachee home they bought in 2006 was nearly foreclosed on, but the couple filed for Chapter 13 reorganization bankruptcy the day before the house was set to be sold at auction, records show. They owed about $242,000, including about $236,000 for the mortgage, interest and other fees.
The bankruptcy case was dismissed after the Rushes did not make payments, but it bought them more time. The family is still living in the home.
The financial blemishes should not worry donors seeking to support her cause, La'Shawn Rush said. The tough times the couple have experienced have only strengthened her resolve to help local youngsters, she said.
"Everyone has a point in life when you've done something you're not proud of, of decisions you make," Rush said. "You learn from what you did and move forward. You allow those mistakes to empower you to do better the next time around, and that's where we're at right now. That's why I want to teach the students the importance of life skills and understanding finance and credit and mortgages."
The bankruptcies and foreclosure were the result of uneducated decisions and bad timing, she said. The couple, she maintains, is back on firmer financial ground, drawing an income from Troy Rush's commercial cleaning business and trying to negotiate a new payment plan to stay in their house.
They've also invested several thousand dollars in the Ignite Youth effort, Rush said.
"That's how much we believe in what we're doing," she said.
One of three children raised in St. Petersburg by a single mother who juggled three jobs, Rush learned by example the importance of a strong work ethic. Her mother was so busy working, though, that she had little time to school her kids on money management, Rush said.
"We weren't really taught about finances, about budgeting and bills," she said.
She learned some lessons the hard way.
In 2005, when they first filed for bankruptcy, the Rushes were living in St. Petersburg with five children. They owed about $31,000 in student loans and about $15,000 on credit card debt, a car loan, and medical bills, records show.
An attorney recommended a Chapter 7 filing, Rush said, though the couple had few assets to liquidate. Some debts were eventually discharged.
The couple decided to move out of the city to give their children a better quality of life, looking to Hernando, where home prices were lower and they could commute to their respective jobs in Pinellas.
They know now they bought a house that was beyond their means and didn't consider other expenses, such as the cost of the commute, Rush said.
"We didn't look at the fact that the mortgage payment would be more than 33 percent of our income," she said. "We just looked at it as we could afford it."
The same year they bought the house, Troy Rush lost his job as a family development specialist for the Father Services program at the Pinellas County Health Department when grant funding ran out, La'Shawn Rush said.
She left her job as a supervisor at SunTrust Bank for a higher-paying job at another bank and was then laid off, she said. She got a job as a child development specialist for the Head Start program at Mid-Florida Community Services in Brooksville and was laid off from there, too.
By then, Troy Rush had his commercial cleaning business up and running. La'Shawn Rush decided to go back to school, working toward a bachelor's degree in accounting from Saint Leo University.
But they started to miss house payments, and foreclosure proceedings started in 2008 as the housing market crashed. They were working on a mortgage modification plan with their original lender when Green Tree acquired the loan. They filed for bankruptcy, then stopped making payments because they were too high, Rush said, and the case was dismissed.
They are now waiting for a response from Green Tree on their proposal for a new payment plan.
Rush got her degree with minors in human relations and business administration. She's currently working toward a master's in business administration from Saint Leo.
Rush said she plans to hire an executive committee that will include an attorney and accountant to oversee Ignite Youth's finances and make sure the organization is following the letter of the law. She won't draw a salary as director until the center is up and running.
Fundraising has just begun, with hopes of raising $300,000 by the end of the year to put toward the purchase of a building. She is looking at the former Suzuki auto dealership on State Road 50 near the Suncoast Parkway.
She is reaching out to groups such as the Hernando County Youth Initiative and to local businesses to boost the effort. The center could host other nonprofit groups to provide services to youngsters.
A devout Christian, Rush said Ignite Youth has no religious affiliation. Though a powerful force in her life, religion can turn some people off, she said, and the goal is to reach as many students as possible.
The blemished personal financial background should be a cause for caution, said Tracy Echols, chairwoman of the Hernando Youth Initiative and director of development for the Hernando Education Foundation.
More importantly, it's crucial for every nonprofit group to establish a board of directors to help oversee the purse strings and make sure the organization earns clean audits, Echols said.
"That's the obligation of any board, to make sure the funds are being allocated in keeping with the intentions of the donors," Echols said.
When told of the Rushes' financial history, Nienhuis, Druzbick and Schenck said the issues don't cause them major concern. All three said they still plan to speak at the fundraising luncheon on May 26.
"People make mistakes," Druzbick said. "They're trying to help the community. As long as they haven't done anything illegal, their personal life shouldn't really play that much into it."
Rush acknowledged that donors to her effort have some risk and that initial contributors will be investors of sorts.
"There's probably never going to be a perfect time to do this unless you're a multimillionaire, but nobody else is stepping up," she said. "I'm really hoping people will see what we're doing and believe in it."
Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.