In the summer of 1967, Todd Leibbrand was twelve years old. Living with his parents and two brothers in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, an elite suburb of Detroit, he was focused that summer on attaining his dream job: delivering the Detroit Free Press in Grosse Pointe. While his home was in the same neighborhood as the Ford and Dodge families and many of his classmates were from very wealthy households, Todd’s upbringing was of modest means but broad vision. “I wanted the paper route job because I wanted to make money,” he recalls simply. “I didn’t get an allowance, but I was surrounded by wealth and I saw what could be done with it.”
As a boy, Todd had plenty of ideas about what he would buy with the money he earned. But the summer of 1967 was a different story. That summer, Todd would for the first time have a vision of how he might use the money he earned as a force for good in the world. In fact, he was inspired by a historical turn of events that unfolded practically on his doorstep.
On Sunday, July 23rd, a police raid on an after-hours bar on 12th Street in Detroit, less than ten miles away from Grosse Pointe, precipitated one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in American history. The riot lasted for five days, and 43 people lost their lives in the turmoil. Governor Romney ordered the Michigan National Guard onto the streets of Detroit, and President Lyndon Johnson deployed U.S. Army troops into the area. “There were tanks stationed around our community,” Todd recalls of Grosse Pointe during the riot. “My Wellesley educated mother, who had been planning to go into the inner city to work as a teacher, was forced to abandon this altruistic dream of hers. But I started to have my own dream.”
As planned, Todd worked the paper route. He was already aspiring to be a stockbroker once he grew up. His father and some of his friends had an investment club they founded in the late fifties that consistently beat the Dow Jones Industrial, and Todd himself was exposed to the stock market through a classroom simulation. Indeed, when it came to conceptualizing making a living, Todd had outlined the means, but to what end? In the years following the Detroit riot of 1967, his idea of what he could do with the modest income he was earning took a clearer shape.
“I thought about all the high school teachers and college professors who were really smart,” Todd says. “And I asked myself what they were doing in the summer time. Wouldn’t it be great to have a summer camp with these teachers that would bring kids from rich and poor neighborhoods together in one place where we could all work together to help everyone get along more effectively? When I was thirteen years old, that’s what I wanted to do.”
Forty-five years after the Detroit riot, Todd Leibbrand is the founder of BEST Kids, a mentoring program for children in the child welfare system in the District of Columbia, where he is also a board member and mentor. Founded in 2001, BEST Kids’s mission is to start early with children who have been abused or neglected, attaching them to a long-term mentor that will stay with them throughout their childhood and help them overcome the trauma they have experienced. Today they work with 61 active matches, and another 20 mentors are going through the screening process. “Our strategy is really to focus on training and supporting our mentors,” Todd explains. “We’ve been blessed to have child psychiatrists and other mental health professionals on our advisory board who help coach our staff and mentors. We focus on keeping our mentors attached to their mentees on a long-term, consistent basis, and we make sure that they make regular contact with their mentees, preferably weekly, no matter what.”
Every child in the program has been the victim of abuse or neglect. Often, they have been removed from the home at least once, and some of the parents have had their parental rights terminated. Financial instability in these families is the norm, forcing them to relocate frequently and adding further strife to the lives of their children. Most often they live in single parent households. “An alarming statistic that really gets to the root of these problems,” Todd notes, “is that over 80 percent of children in the child welfare system will go on to become parents within four years of “graduating” from foster care. So the cycle repeats itself. You have kids having kids. Many of these kids become homeless, incarcerated or part of the underground economy, and those are trends we’re fighting to abate.”
When Todd was 14 years old, he had a vision for how to bring people together to work out their differences. But as an adult, he came to understand that it takes more than a summer summit to solve entrenched socio-economic problems. “The genesis of BEST Kids,” Todd says, “came from my experience volunteering for CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) in the District of Columbia. In 1993 I was matched with an eleven-year-old child who had been kicked out of public schools for fighting and couldn’t read the most basic three-letter words. What I found, though, was that he was a quick study when it came to games, and he had plenty of street smarts. I reached out to mental health professionals and teachers and found ways to get him engaged in learning. He became interested in learning how to read, and with consistent attention, he began to find his way. Years later, after encouraging him and helping him into better schools, he passed the Maryland Literacy Test, and his success really inspired me.”
In Washington, DC, it is a reality that the huge majority of children in the child welfare system are black. Growing up in the sixties in what was at the time an enclave of the rich and powerful, Todd had several experiences with racism that both shocked and helped him form an idea of how things could be better. In one, he wondered why there were no blacks living in Grosse Pointe, and then met the son of a prominent figure in the Grosse Pointe real estate industry. He learned from this classmate how his father wouldn’t sell a house in Grosse Pointe to a black person. In another, Todd saw with his own eyes how young individuals could put themselves above segregation, even while surrounded by it.
“I needed a job to help pay for private college,” Todd explains. “My parents would only pay for a state school, but I wanted to go to a private college, so I got in contact with a family friend who was a highly-placed executive at an automobile stamping plant and landed a well-paying summer job just before graduating high school.” The owner said it was the first time a young person had called him directly, rather than having their parents do it for them. Todd learned later that, because he showed such initiative and drive, it was the first time this man had recommended a newly minted high school graduate for any position.
“At lunchtime in the stamping plant, all the black workers would sit on one side of the cafeteria, and all the white workers would sit on the other side,” Todd remembers. “The only integrated table was the college kids. I would sit there with some black college kids and talk to them about the 1967 riots. The perspectives they shared with me, augmented by the experience of that cafeteria itself, really opened my eyes.”
After graduating from college and then earning his accounting degree, Todd worked for a public accounting firm and secured his CPA license. The firm’s largest client, for whom he was the senior auditor, was expanding into the south, and the client explored hiring Todd. The offer was too lucrative to pass up, so Todd forgot his dream and became a controller of a Louisianan subsidiary of his client. The Treasurer of the parent firm brought Todd to the Washington, DC area, where he eventually worked as a controller for a Real Estate Developer. He then accepted a position at HealthPlus, an HMO, before joining the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). At SBA, he works with venture capital firms to liquidate their private equity portfolios—a position he continues to hold today.
“It wasn’t long after I began working for HealthPlus as a controller that I realized I did not like working in the back office,” Todd reports. “I was just married, and my wife used to be a career counselor at George Washington University. She suggested that I take a career class, and that’s what brought me to the SBA. I had worked with private companies auditing and then preparing their financial statements, and the synergies with venture capital seemed to make sense. On my first day, they sat me at a temporary desk. I opened the drawer of the desk and happened to notice an issue of Washingtonian Magazine. There was a story inside about the best places to volunteer, and I noticed that CASA’s mission of befriending a child and speaking up for their best interests in court appealed to me. That’s how I started volunteering for them. I went through their training, and eventually I was connected to the child who helped form the genesis for BEST Kids.”
Developing the founding principles for BEST Kids thus flowed directly from his CASA experience. “I was exposed to a wonderful support team of teachers, mental health professionals and staff that serendipitously manifested itself,” Todd explains. In 1995, he and a group of CASAs started an urban scouting initiative that became the basis of BEST Kids’ experiential learning program that brings all its mentors and mentees together each month. “These children needed the unconditional love of a family,” he affirms. “They needed a sense of belonging to something positive, and hopefully our monthly peer groups and program in some small measure help.”
However, these children need more than a monthly group. They need to be adopted into loving families, yet the number of competent foster care parents—much less adoptive parents—is dismal. “These children needed a consistent, caring and competent adult in their lives, more than simply an advocate,” says Todd. “This is not an easy task, but the obstacles I’ve encountered along the way have been necessary to help me understand the best way to help the children in the DC welfare system.”
One of those obstacles arose at a time when Todd, himself, was clearing the final hurdles before starting a family with his wife. “My wife and I adopted our son from Moscow,” he details. “When we traveled to Moscow to get him, I sent my mentee postcards to make sure we kept in touch even though I was away. But when I came back, he didn’t want to see me. The Director of Devereux Children Center in Georgetown at the time, Marilyn Benoit, M.D., told me that I should show up at the regular time to see him so he knew I was still there for him. I showed up three times at the prescribed time before he started coming down from upstairs to see me, at which time we rekindled the relationship. I learned how important it was to have someone coach you through the mentor process—someone who can help you work through obstacles so you don’t end up giving up on your mentee.” Todd brings these principles to life today through BEST Kids, where he stresses the paramount importance of regularity and reliability of contact with the children they mentor. Ensuring that his team of mentors is well supported as they aim to lay a foundational relationship upon which their mentees can rely is a pivotal aspect of Todd’s approach, and has served him well since opening the doors to BEST Kids.
Looking to the future, Todd is focused on working with the Chairman of the BEST Kids Board of Directors, Ed Allen, to make sure that the mentors are supported and prepared for a sustained, long-term commitment. Even as they maintain and raise the quality of these relationships, Todd is looking to increase the quantity as well, expanding the net of BEST Kids’ influence to jurisdictions beyond the confines of DC. “It certainly makes sense to diversify from DC into Fairfax, Montgomery, Arlington, Alexandria, and Prince George’s County,” he says. “There are a lot of synergies that we can activate, and we can learn from other agencies while working together to make a difference in these kids’ lives. We’re looking to expand funding sources around these areas, and to build awareness and to demonstrate what we’re doing here in the District. We may not be able to reach every child, and that’s heartache. But I have to focus on the glass being half full.”
In his pursuit to build better lives and better futures, Todd isn’t only looking at the glass as half full–he’s looking at what it’s full of. “These kids might have attachment disorders from the trauma they’ve experienced, but they also have talents,” he emphasizes. Drawing upon the concept of asset-based development of communities, the mission of his organization extends beyond building trust with each individual child and asks society at large to reexamine the lens through which it perceives these children and the geographies that shape them. “If you look, you’ll find that the drug abuse and crime that exist in inner cities are also present in rich suburbs. And yet, as a society, we define the suburbs by the assets they have, and the inner city by its apparent deficits. But what we must do is find the assets and talents in the inner city communities, uncover them, and encourage them to grow. That’s what we’re working on at BEST Kids.”
In advising young people entering the professional world today, Todd emphasizes the importance of being a lifelong learner. “As the world continues to advance at a rapid pace and new discoveries render old understandings obsolete, it’s more important than ever before to keep learning and evolving with the times,” he advises. “Find your passion and follow it, and allow yourself to transform along with that passion as new discoveries are made and the world continues to unfold.” Beyond this, it’s important to pay attention to the injustices that persist, and to remain cognizant of ways—large or small—that one can address those disparities. Whether one volunteers one night a year to further a cause, or makes a career out of improving the lives of those in need, making a concerted effort to ensure that the glasses of others are half full will undoubtedly render yours the same.