Port Protection: Leslie Theurer

“Leadership is not being in the front of the line, it is a matter of taking risks, assuming there is an answer, and realizing that each failure is one step closer to success.”

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Walk Beside and Be My Friend

Every personality test I have ever taken says, YOU ARE A NATURAL LEADER. Now I sit here and cannot think of a great example or even a poor example of my leadership skills. Karina stated, “ I am not a leader I just do what I do.”  I often feel that way. I have never run for a student office, started a march for civil rights, rallied for a position in church, or asked to be in charge of anything. Yet, invariably I end up in charge or making the hard decisions.

In 1974, the crying Indian on television convinced me that we could not throw trash on the roads. I convened my friends and began a committee to clear refuse from the playgrounds and streets in our neighborhood. In 1980, a friend was killed in a drunk driving accident and I became impassioned about the need for designated drivers. I made posters and put up phone numbers for students to call if they found themselves at a party and needing a ride home. My friends and I organized a host of designated drivers that would pick up kids at parties and deliver them safely home.
In 1983, while watching the news we heard about an F4 tornado in Iowa and again my friends and I rallied to get food and clothing to drive up to the survivors. In 1993, the Mississippi River was flooding and I packed my RV and children and sandbagged from St. Genevieve to New Madrid, Missouri.

In 1995 I walked into church and heard about a family down the block that had a grandson that had been in an accident and could we pray for them. I became indignant and gave some speech about faith without works is dead, told them that I was not against prayer, but that prayer without action was not going to change anything. Twenty-four hours later my husband and I were the new heads of the outreach department in our church. The following Saturday we began our version of Adopt-A-Block, canvasing our neighborhood, street by street and meeting the physical needs of our non-church member neighbors.

In walking the streets and meeting the people, we realized there were people truly going without food just blocks from our home. While trying to decide how to fix the problem, I decided to go get groceries to make a huge pot of soup. While I was in the produce aisle, a produce department employee came by with a cart and filled empty boxes with food that would make most Alaskan Bush teachers giddy with the prospect of having them for dinner. I asked him what he was going to do with this produce. He explained that any produce with a blemish was disposed of. An epiphany! I asked to speak with the department manager and the following day a ministry was born. Seven days a week, 364 days a year, they were closed on Christmas, produce would be picked up at 10:30 am.

What began as one small box of produce turned into ten to twelve cases of food daily. I began drafting friends and nearby churches to assist us with this new plight, an over abundance of resources. I learned the Spanish name for every piece of produce that the local grocer carried and built alliances with the local Mexican churches and their congregations, working to get food to the people who most needed it in our neighborhoods. We began making soup and meals for the community. I was adamant that this not be a feeding program but a community and social event.

After one such meal we had almost two gallons of soup left. I suggested that we make some coffee, grab the left over donuts and our soup and head downtown to the bridges. A good friend and church elder, Jim McManus, jumped on board immediately and began brewing coffee. Another young man grabbed his cigarettes out of his car and said he would come a long. We took what we had, put it in a van and my husband and two friends and I drove down to the Broadway bridge.

We pulled up outside a small camp and got out and walked down, the fat lady, the truck driver, the old man, and the biker. We were greeted by a surly crowd hat calmed quickly when they realized we had food and hot coffee. We sat and talked to them while they ate and asked if they would want us to come back. Using some choice profanity and not so churchy talk they explained, if we were bringing food they were taking visitors. Two weeks later we were making weekly visits, bringing food and water. A month later we were picking these men and women up on Sunday mornings, another ministry born. We had built a relationship with a local truck stop and took them to get showers in the morning then drove to church, had lunch and took them home. We often would sit with them at their camp and visit for several hours and listen to their stories and they listened to ours.

One such Sunday afternoon, we were discussing books and one of the men went to his pack and brought me out a novel he wanted to share with me. He asked that I return the favor and bring him one of my hand me downs. I told him that Saturday morning, after Adopt-a-Block I would bring him some new books. He said he would do one better. He wanted to go help us with adopt a block and then we could go to my home and he could browse my library.

We picked him up the following Saturday and he cleaned the streets, mowed lawns and helped my husband fix a sink faucet. After the long day’s work we went to my house and he walked through my shelves of books. He shared his experiences and travels that the novels I loved had taken him on. We discussed literature, good and bad and I changed from teacher to student. He shared his frustration with teachers that had stolen his joy of learning in demanding details. Yet he shared deep hidden details and a love of literature that I had rarely seen in doctoral students. He asked if he could borrow a novel that was on my shelf, threadbare and marked up, obviously well loved. I cringed at allowing this book to leave and grudgingly gave it to him.

Sunday he returned my book to me and it held a single note, “I wanted to learn who you were.” He told me he had read the novel and thanked me for letting him see into me. I was broken in that moment. I realized that I wanted to change the world and God wanted to change me. He wanted me to see that I was valuable as a person, just as each of my homeless men and inner city kids were valuable. The mantra coming from my lips was not reaching my ears.

The following week we began turning over ministries to others in the church and asking them to take the lead in areas we had started. Our friends we made on the streets took over the Adopt-a Block program, We continued to work one block of  the program and still were involved with the homeless and youth, but we found we needed to look at where we were being called next. Ministry was wonderful but we were not reaching the places we felt we should be going and others were ready to take our place

Our daughter was enrolling in college and needed to prove she really came from a family of fourteen, so we had to go with her to show our income tax returns and children’s birth certificates to the financial aid advisor. While in his office an answer came. Pell will pay for you to go back to school too. Really? My husband and I both filled out all of the forms and went back to college. I wasn’t sure where this journey would end but knew a teaching degree was on the path.

At the end of my first semester, I was inducted into Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society of two-year colleges. Two weeks later I was deeply involved in the Society and working with National and International officers almost on a weekly basis. I had become the campus Mom to over half of my classmates and the go to person for every problem the world put in front of them. I was heralded as the model non-traditional student and speaking on panels of advocacy for community college funding. As graduation neared a decision had to be made.

We had thirteen children, owned a home and a business, were leaders in the home education community and were we going to stop with an AA degree or continue on. Jeff and I both had been offered scholarships to several local colleges but none met our needs. There was a state college 100 miles away from us that was perfect. University of Central Missouri had been founded as State Normal School and a teachers college. But this would require moving our family, relying on our older children to run our business and resigning positions in the home education community. We took a leap of faith and packed up our RV and stepped out.

It was less than a week into classes when we were asked to head up the non-traditional student support group. We took that on, alongside a seventeen-hour schedule, and another pregnancy. I was a non-traditional student in traditional classes and felt the stares and glares of nineteen and twenty-year old students. I heard the giggles in the hallways and thought, “If you ONLY knew!” I felt awkward and out of place for the first time in years. I don’t really know why this bothered me but it did. I wondered if I was imagining things or were these kids really offended by the old lady in their class.

About three weeks into class I was in the lounge studying and was frustrated by an assignment I was confused about and I turned on my computer and began watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show. One of the kids in my English class sat down beside me and said, “ You know this movie?” I replied, “ Honey, I was there when it was released.” They laughed and pushed me over on the couch and that day something changed. He pulled his feet up on the couch and watched with me. We began chanting lines at the computer screen and within ten minutes, one half of the Commons was sitting beside us playing along. Again I had become the Campus mom and confidant in a split second. We were invited to study groups and parties. Students and professors saw us as peers. The next two years were a whirlwind of activity and academics.

Then came graduation and my professional career. I was offered a job in the urban core and took it. I was right back where I wanted to be, working with the kids I loved, making a difference for my community and the families that lived there. Well at least I thought so. But fate had another twist to throw at me. Kansas City Schools were closing one half of their schools. They called it “right-sizing.” All teachers without tenure were released. My husband’s position had been phased out as well during the budget cuts. But we had always wanted to see Alaska. Jeff and I applied and were hired in Barrow, AK. We packed our family up and began the journey I am on now.

I never asked to be a leader, it just happened. I became resilient and resourceful. But I became something else, adventurous. I realized that leadership is not being in the front of the line, it is a matter of taking risks, assuming there is an answer, and realizing that each failure is one step closer to success. Leadership is not being in charge, it is being willing to open yourself to others so that you may become the student and they may become the teacher.