NEW YORK -- By just about any measure, Susie Buffett and Latron Louis have a remarkable friendship. Both are from Omaha, but Buffett is well-off and white. Louis is a much younger black man from the poor neighborhood of North Omaha.
Buffett is also the only daughter of the billionaire investor Warren Buffett. And Louis is the product of a troubled childhood that led to five years spent in a gang.
Now 26 and an ex-gang member, Louis is the anti-violence coordinator at Girls Inc. of Omaha. He is adapting the violence interruption model pioneered by CeaseFire in Chicago to better fit the lives of young women in Omaha.
Buffett, born in 1953, is a board member of Girls Inc. She is also the founder of the Sherwood Foundation, an Omaha-based charity, and the Buffett Early Childhood Fund. About once a week, they meet for lunch to discuss life's twists and turns.
"He's like my third child, honestly, this is how much I see him," said Buffett.
"She is like my mom, my second mom," Louis said in a separate interview. Before Buffett intervened, he didn't even know how to read a bill. "She directs me, gives me advice, and a whole lot in my life."
And the story of Louis's life reads a lot like one of the scenarios Buffett aims to prevent through her philanthropy, which funds early childhood education and gang intervention programs. Louis said that after his mother stabbed his father in response to physical abuse, paralyzing him, his parents divorced. A series of abusive boyfriends followed, he remembered.
"I would wake up to broken glass and breaking glass," Louis said. "Those type of things were like a nightmare."
"I liked to ride bikes, I liked to do backflips, so there was joy," he carefully noted, along with the fact that his mother worked long hours to support him. But, he added, "neglect is not normal, witnessing abuse is not normal."
By the age of 18 he had officially joined a gang.
"A gang is like an alternative family. I was seeking love, I was seeking attention, and I wanted to fit in somewhere." Louis said. "I did everything, from robbing to shooting, fighting."
Buffett is trying to help kids from disadvantaged backgrounds improve their lives long before they think of dropping out of high school or committing criminal acts. Her Buffett Early Childhood Fund gives away about $20 million annually, according to the charity. Millions more for education at both the pre-Kindergarten and high school levels goes through the Sherwood Foundation, which says that it donated $83 million last year, including a large gift to the University of Nebraska Foundation to create the Buffett Early Childhood Institute.
So far, giving like Buffett's has helped support the creation of 13 early childhood centers called Educare schools all over the country. According to her early childhood foundation, 13 more are in the pipeline.
From time to time, Buffett fears that private giving like hers might dissuade some members of Congress from fully funding programs like Head Start. But "we can't let [that fear] paralyze us" from giving, she said.
"I was in pre-school when I was four," Buffett said. "I was in a home with two educated parents who had grown up in homes with educated parents. We had books in the house, we went to the zoo, we went on vacation. We were constantly being stimulated and we had a lot of opportunities open to us because of our parents."
For poor kids from radically different backgrounds, with uneducated parents or ones who have less time to spend with their children, "you've spent the first five years of your life in a place where nobody was stimulating you in any way," Buffett said. By the time those kids get to kindergarten, she believes, "the teachers then get blamed for everything."
True to her father's frugal reputation, Susie herself is a product of Omaha Public Schools.
"I did not grow up the way most people probably think I did," she said.
She was inspired by her mother's commitment to social justice, which sparked in her a particular interest in racial inequity. From the age of six or seven, she was in the car with her mother traveling to the city's housing projects.
"We used to get stopped by the police for being white in North Omaha," she recalled.
Susie founded the Sherwood Foundation in 1999. In 2005, her father turbocharged its funding with a a $1 billion pledge; he gave the same amount to his two other adult children. At the same time, Warren promised the Gates Foundation $40 billion.
Since then, the Sherwood Foundation has rapidly expanded its giving. Warren's donation comes in annual installments of about $50 million, and Sherwood tries to give away that much every year. The foundation's staff has grown, too, although the total payroll, which includes Buffett as a full-time employee, still only numbers eight. The Buffett Early Childhood Fund, funded by Sherwood, likewise employs only a handful of people.
"There's that same sort of ethic of no overhead, not a lot of frills, that her dad has instilled at Berkshire, and there's a similar drive for getting results," said Michael Burke, the program director at the Buffett Early Childhood Fund.
In 2006, The New York Times noted that similarly sized foundations sometimes employ hundreds more people to manage operations and conduct research into their donations' effectiveness.
With the added money from her father, Susie's charity now hopes to connect early childhood education with children's later years. The Sherwood Foundation funds gang intervention, prison re-entry and summer jobs programs at Impact One Community Connection, a North Omaha non-profit.
Usually, Buffett said, she tries to avoid dropping in on her grantees because of the disruption that inevitably ensues. But when she met Latron Louis, and two other gang violence interrupters involved in the program, something clicked.
Her employees at the Sherwood Foundation are quick to point out that they are still evaluating Impact One and other organizations they fund.
But Buffett is clearly gratified about the role she's played in Louis's life. And she's glad he's trying to teach high school girls about their self-worth, and how to defuse violent situations.
"You know those bad boys, when you're in high school, are always much more appealing than the good ones," she said with a laugh.
"Every time we go somewhere, and Susie has a friend there, they say 'I've heard so much about you,'" Louis said. "She's always bragging about me. I'm that gang member who's turning his life around."
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