Providence House


Providence House CEO Natalie Leek-Nelson leads with vision, compassion and skill

Posted August 24, 2012 in Articles

Author: Chuck Yarborough, The Plain Dealer

Natalie Leek-Nelson doesn't look at the world in a normal way. Artists, teachers and gifts from God are like that, and she's been called all three.

The first two are easily documented: A Cleveland Institute of Art sheepskin in fine arts covers the initial description, and coursework in education at Baldwin Wallace means there's no need for a sniff test on the second.

But that third descriptor, arguably the most important when it comes to the woman who is president and chief executive officer of the crisis nursery Providence House, may be the most undeniable.

Why? Because it comes from Sister Hope Greener, who founded Providence House 31 years ago, when a mother in need came knocking on her door. The location of that door -- still part of the Providence House complex -- isn't common knowledge, for safety reasons.

"Natalie is God's providence," said Sister Greener, who now lives in the Congregation of St. Joseph community in Rocky River.

"She graduated from our [St. Joseph] Academy, and when I was on the board of the academy many moons ago, she was also on the staff," Sister Greener said.

When the previous director at Providence House died of cancer, Leek-Nelson, who'd been serving as a consultant under an interim director, took over as boss.

It's sort of what you expect from a woman who lives by the credo "Never let the opportunity in a good crisis pass you by." That's why now, under her stewardship, Providence House has morphed from a place that took care of kids to a place that puts families first.

"In our first 20 years of operation of our 31 . . . we were a safe haven for babies to come," said Leek-Nelson, 44, who lives in Rocky River with her husband, Steve, and their two boys, Connor and Corey. "We weren't doing a lot of the care we do with kids now, and we were doing NONE of the family program."

That family program is Leek-Nelson's pet project, and it has not been easy. When the program, which requires parental involvement, began a a decade ago, social-service agencies pretty much pooh-poohed the idea. The agencies believed that parents in such straits that would require them to "dump" their kids, as some saw it, rarely were capable of or willing to change.

Those agencies have been proven wrong, more often than not.

"We're reunifying 95 percent of our families, and family compliance is 90 [percent] to 95 percent," Leek-Nelson said.

Part of that is a desire to break the chain of abuse and abandonment that often leads to foster care. Third- and fourth-generation parents who were raised in the system are coming to Providence House with one goal:

"They're coming to us and saying, 'Not MY baby. No more. I'm done,' " Leek-Nelson said. "They don't need a handout; they need a hand-up."

A business mind in nonprofit world

"Natalie is a visionary," said Gareth Vaughan, chairman of Providence House's board of trustees and president of the Albert M. Higley Co.

"She has taken the agency from a smaller, boutique agency to one that is nationally recognized. She's brought a sense of running it like a business, not from a standpoint of making money, but organizationally."

There's a reason for that: Leek-Nelson spent time teaching computer arts, a job she loved, then segued into the business world, working with software developers.

Her epiphany came on a red-eye flight from a business trip in San Francisco with some colleagues. Their words showed a lack of concern for the client, as long as the product was flashy, she said.

Worse, none of what she was doing gave her the emotional lift she got from seeing the light go on over a struggling student's head. For a while, she stayed with the company as a consultant, but she began to focus on the nonprofit sector, fortuitously for Providence House.

The Providence House board of trustees was frustrated, primarily because members, who by profession are businesspeople, didn't speak the language of nonprofits any more than the nonprofit workers spoke the language of business. But Leek-Nelson's diverse background made her fluent in both.

Sister Greener may be Leek-Nelson's biggest fan.

"[Leek-Nelson] is incredibly caring of the children," the 84-year-old nun said. "She wants to put the family back together again. To her, it's not a job or a position; it's a ministry."

Leek-Nelson has as much respect and love for Sister Greener as the nun does for the protege who is taking her beloved Providence House to new levels.

"Here's this visionary who 31 years ago wanted to do what nobody in this community knew how to do for these kids. God forbid that I'm the one who stops that from happening. She'll haunt me!" Leek-Nelson said with a laugh of her mentor.

Leek-Nelson's business acumen pays off in other ways. She is, as Sister Greener said and several members of her staff confirmed, committed to the children and families who find themselves on the doorstep of Providence House. But her strength may be in her ability to recognize -- and navigate -- the roadblocks that often derail so many "do-gooders."

Foremost among those obstacles was the "system" itself.

"When I started here 11 years ago, we didn't really work with the parent," Leek-Nelson said. "We thought that the safety net was out there. What we quickly realized is that the safety net is full of holes, and it's really hard to navigate.

"I have master's-level social workers who have years of experience who run into walls all the time," she said. "So imagine a mom with no resources, no transportation, no money, maybe with literacy issues, trying to navigate that same system.

"And we wonder why our families have multigenerational cycles of poverty and violence and underemployment," she said, shaking her head.

But it's a trend that Providence House is trying hard to reverse.

Only about 30 percent of the children who come to Providence House a first time return for additional stays. Nationally, the average is closer to 80 percent or 90 percent, Leek-Nelson said.

"But that's because they get 48 or 72 hours with the kids," she said. "We get 30 to 60 to 90 days, so we can really dig in."

Serving as many kids as the program can

Who are the people whose children wind up in Providence House? It's not who you might think.

"A lot of people think these are poor, black kids from the inner city," Leek-Nelson said. "They're not. . . . Sure, there's a concentration in the near East and near West sides, but we also have kids from Shaker [Heights] and from West Park. West Park is our No. 1 referral community."

The need for such a place is as obvious as it is sad. Statistically, Cuyahoga County ranks tops in the state with about 21,000 calls annually to report abuse and neglect of children -- and Ohio is No. 8 nationwide.

"What you see reported is about 50 percent of what's really going on," Leek-Nelson said. "You're talking about 40,000 incidents [annually in Cuyahoga County alone] where kids are in jeopardy. We want to prevent that from happening."

The 200 or so volunteers and staff members, such as facilities manager Bobby Richards, call Leek-Nelson "a superwoman. Somehow, she knows everything." Still, the sheer volume of need dictates that it's got to be more than a one-woman show.

But Leek-Nelson is bent on turning the challenge into an opportunity, right now by spearheading a $2 million, 7,000-square-foot expansion.

Part of the reason for the new structure are new state rules that more than halved the number of children Providence House could serve at any time, from 26 to 12. The other part, though, is that along with restoring those original capacity numbers -- by adding bathrooms, square footage and the like -- the expansion will allow Providence House to extend the age range to newborn to 10 years old; it's currently newborn to 6. Construction on the expansion began in April, and it should be open by Thanksgiving.

It's not been easy in these times of economic woes to operate a nonprofit. But Leek-Nelson remains committed . . . and unwavering.

"We have to raise about $1.8 million a year, from the community, from companies, from foundations [for the regular budget]," she said. "We don't always raise what we need, and then we have to cut back.

"Then we get this $2 million challenge on top of the $1.8 million," she said. "It would've been easy to say, 'We're just going to operate with 12 kids.' But we said, 'No, that's not what we need to do. We need to be serving as many kids as we can.' "

Here's why:

Leek-Nelson tells the story -- without tearing up -- of an 18-year-old who visited the facility. The teen, who gave his name only as "Bobby," had to persuade the staff to let him into Providence House, whose location is kept quiet to protect its young charges.

"I lived here when I was 4," Bobby told the wary staffers. He had his fifth birthday in Providence House, complete with a party and a makeshift cake: a Hostess Ho Ho with a candle in it. The celebration came with hugs and kisses. And the Providence House specialty:

"It was the first time in my life I ever heard somebody say, 'I love you,' " Bobby said.

Leek-Nelson's own parents divorced when she was 3, but they remained respectful toward each other. It couldn't have been easy; butcher Bob Leek was a recovering alcoholic, and some of his family "cut him off" during some of the more challenging years of his life.

"But he had seven years of sobriety before we lost him," Leek-Nelson said. "They wrote him off and never got to enjoy those seven years with this amazing guy."

It's a lesson that benefits the families who come to Providence House. Natalie Leek-Nelson will never write anyone off.

Just ask the future Bobbys.

Original Article:

Back to News