In 1977, Dr. Gary Gitnick founded the Fulfillment Fund to help support the dreams of youth in need. Little did he know that over the course of more than 40 years, his creation would empower tens of thousands of Los Angeles students.
The Earliest Years
The story of the Fulfillment Fund begins much earlier than its founding years, when Dr. Gitnick was a young boy growing up in a low-income community in Omaha, Nebraska. He did not like school or studying, but he also did not love his neighborhood. Very few of his peers had ambitions for getting out or going to college, despite how smart they were. “There was a lot of violence,” Dr. Gitnick shared. “You could not walk down to the next block without worrying about getting roughed up. I knew that if I stayed, my life would go in a direction I did not want. It was then that I decided that I had to do something to get out of there. And the answer for me was education.”
He threw all of his energy into working hard in school, even though he admits he was not a “good student.” His perseverance paid off, and he earned the grades he needed to get into the University of Chicago and eventually, Johns Hopkins University.
In college, his love of learning grew. Finances were tight, but thanks to scholarship funds, he was able to focus on school without worrying about how he was going to afford the next year. “I got an excellent education and it never cost me a nickel. I have always been very, very grateful for that,” said Dr. Gitnick. While continuing his education, he worked in the Department of Pathology, was the deaner’s assistant in the morgue and helped with autopsies, and took photos of microscopic cells that were later used for teaching purposes.
Along the way he met his future wife, Cherna, as well as incredible role models who ultimately helped shape his career, connected him to internship opportunities, and opened doors for years to come. Dr. Gitnick said, “All of us need people to help empower us get ahead in life – and I certainly did.” The lasting impact of his education and mentors was never far from his mind.
A Life-Changing Vision
In 1969, Dr. Gitnick and his wife, Cherna, moved to Los Angeles and he joined the faculty at the University of California. He worked in a very active area of medical research with a large laboratory department. “In those days,” he remarked, “you were expected to host a lavish party at Christmas-time. You invited the staff and their families, it was catered, you had live entertainment and very nice decorations – but it was very costly!”
The Gitnicks had a modest income at the time, and as Dr. Gitnick wrote a check for his third annual holiday party, he looked at the number at the end of his pen. “That’s an awful lot of money for a party!” he remembered thinking. He told his staff the very next day that they would host a party for the same amount of money, but that it would go toward a different purpose. Instead, their holiday party would be for local children with disabilities.
This single event sparked Dr. Gitnick’s vision to create a small mentoring organization, initially designed for children with disabilities. He knew how much he had gained from positive role models in his past, and wanted every young person to realize their full potential, too – especially if they had been told by someone else, or society at large, that they had a limited future. The Fulfillment Fund was born, and it became the first role modeling organization of its kind in the country.
A Mission of Mentorship and Education
As the Fulfillment Fund’s work continued in Los Angeles, a troubling pattern came to light: too many students from low-income communities were falling through the cracks and not making it to college. Many were not even graduating from high school.
Remembering his own education journey, Dr. Gitnick pivoted to meet this critical need, expanding the Fulfillment Fund to serve children of all abilities and adding high school completion and college readiness to the organization’s mission. The Fulfillment Fund added a college scholarship program, which began in 1989. Dr. Gitnick’s story was starting to come full-circle.
In 1991, Cherna Gitnick founded the Friends of the Fulfillment Fund: a women’s auxiliary group that raised crucial funds. Soon, the Friends began hosting annual fundraising luncheons which went on for more than ten years, and later transformed these events into new and creative initiatives such as “Songs of Our Lives” and the Fulfillment Fund Author and Artist Series, which helped raise critical funds for scholarships and the organization.
The Fulfillment Fund added a formalized mentor program in 1992, followed by the organization’s first college counseling program in 1995. As the years continued, the Gitnicks’ vision expanded to include classroom instruction, financial aid support, college trips, and experiential learning opportunities.
Today, the Fulfillment Fund’s mission to empower students to graduate from high school, get into college, and earn their degree continues to change lives. Beyond the classroom, the Fulfillment Fund Alumni Association offers workshops and networking opportunities, and the programs team is adding a growing array of career-focused services that will change the game for new graduates.
At each step of the way, the Gitnicks have been there to build connections, help fundraise and make each forward-thinking dream a reality. We are immeasurably grateful for their vision, generosity, and dedication to the youth of Los Angeles.
Dr. Gitnick is the Emeritus Chief of the Vatche and Tamar Manoukian Division of Digestive Diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and headed up one of the largest gastroenterology divisions in the world. Dr. Gitnick is former president of the Medical Board of California, former chief of staff of the UCLA Medical Center and was medical director of the UCLA Health Care Programs. Cherna and Dr. Gitnick live in Los Angeles and have been married for 55 years. They have four children, seven grandchildren, and are avid collectors of contemporary glass art.
Learn more about our founders’ story by watching our Legacy of Changing Lives video.