Steve Liberati left his suit-and-tie banking job with the fancy title - "hated it," he says - to work in Camden public housing for his father's pest-control business.

While the thugs around the projects dealt drugs, Liberati killed bugs and hung out with the kids who lived there - chatting them up about sports, school, life. That was when the idea hit him.

"He's just got this intuition," said his formerly skeptical father, Rick.

A fitness junkie, Liberati found a room at one of the complexes, Centennial Village, and secured permission to fill it with equipment - mats, squat racks, weights.

Three teenage boys showed up; Liberati taught them how to lift. They called themselves Steve's Club.

"I kid you not: The next week, nine kids came. I said, 'Whoa, this is cool. We'll have some fun,' " said Liberati, 30. "So we turned up the music and told them about the program."

A month after that, Steve's Club had 20 teens. Now, less than three years later, it has had more than 100 Camden participants, including several who work for Liberati in a health-snack company he created to support the endeavor.

International orders started to ship last week, and Liberati hopes to launch Steve's Clubs for at-risk youths around the nation.

"The next time you talk to me, I'll be working for him," his father joked.

For Camden teens with few after-school options (particularly free ones), supervised exercise is just the "hook," Liberati said.

In addition to addressing the obesity that plagues many cities, including Camden, Steve's Club offers the guidance of adults who care - not just Liberati, but also volunteer coaches from the suburbs and alumni from the program.

"I love working out and giving that gift. But changing minds is the biggest part," said Liberati, a Gloucester Township native who lives in Pennsville, Salem County.

Working with his charges two hours a day, five days a week, Liberati connects with them on topics like family, school, and the future. He gives them books. He has them write down goals. He poses questions: What are you doing after high school? What are you interested in?

"No one asks them that," he said. "No one has ever talked to them about college."

Drawing out youths who lack father figures is one thing. Financially sustaining Steve's Club while starting his own family was another.

His wife, Kristen, Liberati's sweetheart at the University of Delaware, was struggling with a difficult pregnancy when Steve's Club got started. Like her father-in-law, she was uncertain about it, but supportive.

"He would come home every day so excited and say, 'So-and-so brought a friend!' " she remembered. "He has such a big heart, and he really just wants to help as many kids as he can."

There was good reason for skepticism. Steve's Club almost died several times.

After his gear was stolen at Centennial Village, Steve's Club moved to the Police Athletic League building in Camden. Liberati bought a $1,200 van to deliver his kids to the facility. But then, he said, PAL started charging rent. He couldn't afford it. Liberati asked churches in Camden for free space: no, no, no.

The club bounced around three other spots before landing last year at an office park across from Cooper River Park in Pennsauken.

By then, Liberati had left pest control and subsidized Steve's Club with money he earned as a certified personal trainer. In Steve's Club and his private sessions, he uses a program called CrossFit, also employed in the military, that involves weight-training, sprints, and gymnastics.

The gym, in the garage of the Steve's Club office, is lined with dry-erase boards on which the progress of members is recorded. Liberati walks the floor during the group sessions, encouraging: "Jump, good! . . . You're a fighter, good! Almost there!"

Steve's Club brings in a mostly new crop of about 20 Camden students - nearly all boys - every four months. Only space limits the number.

Prematurely gray, with a bodybuilder's thick neck, Liberati has the gentle demeanor of one who has found contentment: "I wake up every day and say, 'Wow, I'm so lucky and blessed to do this.' "

He has formed bonds with many who might otherwise be hanging out on corners.

"I was born and raised on the streets, and most of the kids who come here are from the streets," said Rick Gonzalez, 19, who lost 70 pounds with Steve's Club.

"I didn't care about life. I just took it as it came. I learned morals here . . . how to deal with people."

Jose "Charlie" Henriquez, also 19, was among the first in Steve's Club. He has never met his father, and his stepfather works two jobs. He called Liberati a "father figure."

"This is, by far, the most positive place I've been around," Henriquez said.

In late 2008, some members complained to Liberati that, despite exercising, they hadn't shed pounds. Liberati suggested a "paleo" or "caveman" diet - skipping rice and bread in favor of the hunter-gatherer basics of meat, fruit, and nuts. But it was hard to find something on the diet in the Camden High cafeteria, they complained.

Liberati bought a dehydrator and made his own jerky from grass-fed beef. He added nuts and dried fruit, and tested the lunch replacements on the kids.

They loved them - and so were born Paleokits.

Two months ago, Liberati took eight teenagers in the Steve's Club van to Rutgers University's Food Innovation Center in Bridgeton, Cumberland County. Once a week, they are paid about $10 an hour to pack Paleokits.

"It's an alternative to hustling. This is their gang. This is their family," said Liberati, who hires only Camden residents.

"I've seen Steve take a gang member, get him out of the gang, get him off the streets, get him to stop selling drugs, get his life straightened out, get his body strong," said Erin Kelly, an executive vice president of United Way of Camden County and a private fitness client at Steve's Club.

"He's trying to create a cycle where he's not the only change agent," Kelly said. "He's empowering kids to help each other, which you don't see a lot of."

By also giving them work, Steve's Club addresses all three of United Way's goals - education, income, and health, she said.

Sales of Paleokits, which Liberati gives away as rewards for good workouts, fully fund Steve's Club. They even paid for courses so two members could become certified personal trainers.

Eventually, Liberati said, he would like graduates of Steve's Club to handle marketing and sales for Paleokits.

Liberati wouldn't say how many units he was moving, but his smile - and love notes to Paleokits all over the Internet - suggest that he will no longer have to knock on church doors to beg for space.

In Camden, Liberati now knows, "there's so much potential that's never realized."