When April Collier returned to her New Orleans house, almost everything was destroyed.

Hurricane Katrina had left just one item, a baby picture of Collier's daughter, untouched.

"My roof was two blocks away," Collier said.

The York City native, then an aviation mechanic in the Navy, had been stationed in New Orleans for about two years when the storm flooded her adopted city and killed hundreds of residents.

Collier and her then 2-year-old daughter, Sanai, had been among the last to evacuate before Katrina struck. Her supervisor had ordered the family out of the city at the last minute.

She returned months later to help in the cleanup efforts. Only a few New Orleans businesses were serving customers at the time.

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Among them was a restaurant desperately searching for help. Collier responded, offering to work in the Landry's Seafood kitchen for free.

She had just one request.

"I need to know how you did that," Collier told the chef, referring to the restaurant's authentic Bayou cuisine.

Collier, 32, spent six months shadowing the kitchen staff and absorbing everything she could about the food she'd come to love.

Collier — known in York County for her standout career as a star basketball player for York High — returned to her hometown a year and a half ago.

She "ran from York" soon after enrolling in the Navy at age 16. By that time, she'd lost friends to the violence fueled by the city's drug trade.

Not a lot has changed in York since she left as a teenager, Collier said.

"Everything I ran from, it met me at the front door," she said.

Changed: But more than a decade in the Navy has changed Collier. She's back in York with a new perspective and a sense of unfinished business.

"Now I'm coming back to find my place," she said.

Not only can she make a delicious shrimp po' boy, Collier has put herself to work helping York's youth overcome the destructive influences of poverty, drugs and gangs.

Collier has also been volunteering full time at a nonprofit youth boxing program in the city. At Stick N Move, Collier is a mentor and a girls' basketball coach.

Recently, she's taken on a new role.

A few months ago, Collier began putting her culinary talents to use as a way of raising money for the youth program.

"Tired of asking people for money," Collier has been working out of the kitchen at Chino's Deli, 223 Fulton St., to offer customers an alternative menu of New Orleans-style fare.

She's been so busy that Collier has decided to open a restaurant of her own in July on the burgeoning block known as Royal Square.

New venture: The new restaurant at 111 E. Princess St. will be called G's Jook Joint. A portion of the restaurant's profits will continue to support Stick N Move, she said.

"I guess everything happens for a reason," she said.

— Reach Erin James at ejames@yorkdispatch.com.