May 26th, 2021
Judith Halbreich’s lifetime of advocacy work is focused on the importance of all children having a home base and continuous mentorship. She is a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist with a successful executive career in social services, clinical research and mental health. Judith is the founder of Home of Champions, a unique program in Upstate New York that identifies leaders emerging from the foster care system and supports them towards becoming champions of their best selves.
Learn more about Home of Champions.
Learn more about The Passionistas Project.
Passionistas: Hi, and welcome to the Passionistas Project Podcast, where we talk with women who are following their passions to inspire you to do the same. We're Amy and Nancy Harrington. And today we're talking with Judith Halbreich. Her lifetime of advocacy work is focused on the importance of all children, having a home base and continuous mentorship.
She is a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist with a successful executive career in social services, clinical research and mental health. Judith is the founder of Home of Champions a unique program in upstate New York that identifies leaders emerging from the foster care system and supports them towards becoming champions of their best selves.
So please welcome to the show Judith Halbreich
Judith: So happy to be here.
Passionistas: So Judith, what's the one thing you're most passionate about?
Judith: I am most passionate about changing policies and procedures and instituting some programming for the disadvantage youth or kids coming out of foster care, going to college that want to graduate and want to have a career and want to be leaders, but there are difficulties in obtaining that. So I am so passionate about them achieving their goals.
Passionistas: Why is that something you became particularly passionate about?
Judith: As a social worker in New York City, and as a caseworker I started off with having teenagers from probably the worst areas of New York, like East New York. And I had a group of kids 13 to 17 and we took them and I decided to take them away on retreats with staff to empower them, to give them self-esteem and we handpick them.
Many of them were in care foster care because they were abused, severely abused. And I can tell you one story of a girl that was so severely abused, but she's so smart. And she went on to college and she became a director of a Bronx Rehab Center. So we took the youth to retreats with an independent living skills program, but with the sense that they are diamonds in the rough, they just need to have the support to be the best they could be.
I realized that, and then I became executive director of that agency. And one day after I left that agency to relocate. That one person that was severely abused, who made an incredible life for herself, came back to the agency and said, if it wasn't for this group of staff, that helped me. I wouldn't be where I am.
And to me, that was like the impetus for starting this program without a doubt. No one ever he has professionally. What? Because no one looks for it. What they've done. Right. You just do what you do on your path. But she came back and said, I want to say, thank you for the love and the encouragement. She went to college. She became a director of a clinic. That's one.
And there, there are many, but she's the one that came back. And that was kind of the realization that this absolutely works. The mentorship and the support that is needed for disconnected disadvantage, foster care youth to come out of a system that want to go to college that want to achieve.
They can do it. And Nancy, Amy, can you imagine that you and I had to support growing up and even if we didn't, it may turned out maybe mediocre for some people and maybe our situation, but for us, it's great. But can you imagine for those kids, it is a disaster, it's a disaster. They don't have that support.
Passionistas: Tell us about where you grew up and what your childhood was like.
Judith: My childhood. I had a mother who was an incredible lady. She went through hardships on her own, but always cared for and supported and foster care kids and adoption. She was a woman that was self-empowered. And not only did she take care of the community, those kids, but also she was.
And incredible business woman in the suburban long Island. So through her divorce, she actually went to the dark night of the soul and she retreated in the basement, but I learned what impairment is. She became a spiritual leader, a universal spiritual leader. Aside from that, her grandmother living in Queens, New York supported the community.
So all many young mothers she would bring, the grandmother would bring my mother's grandmother would bring baskets of food. Diapers anything or not diapers at that time, but a lot of food and anything else that these young mothers needed or the community needed. So I come from that background of giving back to the community when it was time for you to go to college, where did you go and what did you decide to study?
I actually went to, it was the time of the Civil Rights. We were witnessing a lot of stuff going on in New York. We couldn't get gas. There were some violent protests. It was very calm, nothing like today. So my mother decided I'm going to, you're going to go to Indiana. So I spent time at St. Mary's in Indiana.
I actually started the first drug rehab program online in Indiana University, but I had gone to St. Mary's and I worked under Birch by just doing a policy and procedure stuff, but I went into college, wanting to, I saw it teach elementary education and then one day I decided, no, this is not me, even though I wanted to do see it.
I did art and I said, no, I'm going to be a social worker. I'm going to impact whatever policies and procedures there are. That need to be, you know, revamped. I need to be an advocate. So it, my junior year, that's when it started. And then I had gone on to a graduate school in New York City.
Passionistas: So now tell us about your first job out of school. Was that McMann services for children?
Judith: That was Angel Guardian on Long Island. And I worked there for three years. I had some clients in Brooklyn and there was an opportunity for me to go to Fordham Graduate School of Social Services, and they had a one-year program, but because I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Social Work too. I was able to get into that program at Fordham for a year, and I received my Master's and then moved to New York City following an offer at McMahon, which were run by the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary. And the Franciscans are incredible because they are professionally in all walks of life physicians, social workers, nurses, teachers, and here, they had this organization on 45th Street and First Avenue that it was a small operation.
Maybe we had 200 kids, the budget was a million something. But it made an impact. So I left my graduate school, got hired there as a caseworker, and that's when I started programming with independent living skills. Then later I became the director of social services and I started actually the first HIV foster boarding home program.
Now that was in a time when no one knew what HIV was. An AIDS. Well, we had, we had babies coming in and out of care back in the hospital, back and foster care and no one knew what to do. So I worked with the city of New York and with Ari, I'll never forget Ari Rubinstein and Albert Einstein who they, they were researching what this thing was, this disease and why kids were dying.
And then we established the first foster boarding home program because I had to go to Albany and fight. To get foster parents a better rate to take care of kids that was severely sick. I mean, can you imagine having babies that are going back and forth to the hospital and staying there, coming back, going there? You know, it was an incredible time. And then I became executive director and the first lay executive director of a Franciscan order.
Passionistas: And so why did you move on from there? And did you go to Boston after that?
Judith: The reason I left was because I got a proposal to be married and well, when you're in, you know, in your thirties and you get a proposal and I had proposals, but I thought, Oh no, this is my career, you know, but I got a proposal from my dear husband, but he had to be in Buffalo.
So he is I had to move from, after being executive director for a year, I moved to Buffalo with him, but the agency called me back to be on the board of directors. And then we had gone to Boston just for a year, but I stayed two years because I loved it. I wanted to move there. We had our daughter and I said, this is like the best place in the world. So I stayed there two years and then came back to Buffalo.
Passionistas: What did you do there?
Judith: Well, I was the marketing consultant for the commissioner of social services in Boston. Yeah. And my daughter went to a public school that was incredible. And I absolutely a hundred percent wanted to stay there, but what can you do? Right.
Passionistas: But then you ended up back in New York City.
Judith: So I worked with the University of Buffalo doing clinical trials for depression and women's studies. And then my daughter graduated high school and went on to college and New York City. And I then decided, cause my grants ended my husband and I agreed that I could get a position in New York City.
And then we would just go back and forth, which works for us cause we kind of travel, you know, for work anyway. And that's when I procured a position as director of a clinical director of a mental health facility in Harlem. And I was there for eight years.
Passionistas: What was that experience like?
Judith: It's very challenging. I loved my staff without a doubt. I had about 35 people seven psychiatrists and the rest psychotherapists, and we provided 33,000 visits, medical visits a year, but it was tough because. The community needs so much more than what we were offering. So it was tough. I started in my clinic coordinating healthcare and mental health.
Which is so important for the kids too. You can't just take care of one arm. You have to take care of the whole body, right. Something's going on. So I absolutely loved the community there. Some were dependent on drugs because that's the system, right? It's not just there it's everywhere, but I was really happy to hire a nurse who coordinated health and with us. And psychiatric care.
Passionistas: So now how did all this lead to founding a Home of Champions?
Judith: My daughter said that she had to interview somebody in Panama and would I come with her? And that's the time I was in New York city, my husband and I were going back and forth because he had a job here in Buffalo. And I was in New York and Bethany was at school in NYU, but she was interviewing somebody in Panama.
So I went with her and we decided to go to an off shore, like a, a small, tiny Island. And we did. And you can only bike ride there. So we did that and you don't get too many services there. So we stayed in a tree house and they had bikes, but the bikes were not suitable really, but we took them anyway and we later found out they weren't suitable.
And I fell off a bridge on the bike. I came up and my daughter said to me, and I would, you know, blood was gushing. And she said, when are you going to do this Project? When are you going to do this thing that you love for kids? As I was bleeding, mom, when are you doing it? Do it. You talk about it, like gushing the blood.
I come up, the bike wrapped around my neck does the handle and I went down, but then I was like, and then write your book. Do those things matter now, but that's a story because they were there no clinics. So some guy that was drunk, a taxi guy picked us up and he was throwing beer cans around. He took us to a clinic and he said, these are the symptoms that you have to watch. You're not going to be alive if you have one of those symptoms, because it's takes three hours to get you out of here to a hospital. So it worked.
Passionistas: What were the symptoms?
Judith: You said the symptoms were brain clot. Right? Then I would phase out, but I had no symptoms. I just bled, which was good. I would be dizzy, you know, unconscious, but I had none of those. That was the turning point of that. Because I was, again, I was working full time and it didn't matter. She, my daughter just said, Do it, you're not going to die now, mom.
Passionistas: So tell us about the organization itself and what's, what's the mission?
Judith: I was searching for property. I had gone to New York city looking upstate and found this property. That was perfect. It's an hour away from New York city. And it was the old estate of Floyd Patterson and the training camp of Muhammad Ali, Johannson and of course, Floyd lived there and Tracy Patterson, his son, who's still there in the area. So we purchased it. And for the past few years, it's a startup, we've been doing workshops and we have a champion curriculum.
So our mission is to identify potential leaders in the foster care system. So statistically. 400,000 kids are in care. 26,000 are discharged from care. So you get a kind of perspective. Now, a certain percent, I'm just talking about New York state a certain percent want to go to college. They do want to go.
They want to learn about vocations. They want to learn. So when they are discharged from care, it's either 18 or 21 and some can still remain if they're in college. But what happens is 3% of them graduate from college and it might be a little bit less. So in New York state, statistically, I mean, once they're discharged from care, one out of four become homeless.
One out of four are incarcerated two years after they're discharged, which is, and 42%. And, you know, I have the research to confirm this 42% don't complete high school, but I was, I, the reason that I did this mission and this vision was because of the kids I worked with. If they have an opportunity. Look, what they do.
One went off to college, became a director and that, that was like three or four retreats. And two years of mentoring. So this particular organization that I created is to screen foster care or now disadvantage youth that get to college on their own merit, or want to get to vocational school and have leadership qualities.
So when you look at the issue with kids in foster care, they go from one home to the next. And it's the average three, three transfers a year to different homes, different schools. So what happens is some of them create resiliency. So these what the society calls a misfit. No, some of them. Have this resiliency to adapt their tune into details.
Why you have to go from one home to the next. So when that happens, right, they have this extraordinary creative activity. Those are the kids we want before they get to pimps and create their own business, a fortune that way. But these are the kids. We want the ones that are resilient, you know, the ones that can.
Survive in a college atmosphere and that's what they want. So just let me skip Muhammad Ali said “Champions aren't made in the gyms.” So champions, they have the will and the skill are champions, but what's most important to be a champion is the, will the will. So I've noticed doing the workshops. And speaking was kids doing the workshops that when I have 35 kids in the workshop too, I know that it can be leaders.
Why? Cause they march on forward. They bring the rest of the group. They're not followers they're leaders. So that's our mission to identify future leaders among foster care youth or disadvantage youth. And I'm saying that because there are other kids in homeless shelters that want to go to college that are kicked out of their home because of abuse, but they have a potential and a strong, productive, they want to be strong, productive leaders. So those are the kids were screaming.
Passionistas: You're listening to the Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Judith Halbreich. To learn more about Home of Champions, visit HomeofChampionsNY.org .
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Now here's more of our interview with Judith.
So, how do you find the kids or how do they get involved with the person?
Judith: Right now, I've been connected with New York City agencies and invite them to our workshops. But at this point, we're in a, we're trying we're fundraising to get. The residential part of the programming done. Now, when kids are discharged, I don't know anything about how to take care of themselves in an apartment, in a home. So we're building a tiny home village. So each tiny home is about a little under $20,000.
So on this property, our aim is to get those tiny homes in so they can learn independent living, financing, wellbeing, but it's a metaphor because they're going to learn how to build one. And then we're going to have those on campus for them to live in. But metaphorically, when you build a tiny home, you build the base, the foundation, the walls.
Well, our creation of this curriculum is what is the foundation of your life? You know, what are the rules? What's the roof, what's the interior. So the important thing is a consortium having a consortium and I have connected with not only New York City agencies and linkage agreements with many of them that know me from the past, but also the SUNY.
And then we have West Point coach in boxing who wants to come over. But this one of the things is discipline. If you don't have discipline, you can't do it. So they come over and Tracy Patterson has been at our workshops, just talking about boxing, but what. He's a world champion boxer, but he didn't get there overnight.
He had to have that will and the discipline to do it. And these kids, when I see them in workshops, they get it to two out of 35. And I don't know statistically what that is, but maybe handful get it. And they want to be part of the program and the others. Gradually if that's what they want. So our program is unique because it screens for leadership.
Cause you know, you and I had the opportunity. They don't, they don't have an opportunity and I'm a proponent for kids being in care until age 26. Because when they're discharged, they're discharged with the, I'm not saying agencies do a great job. They try to do a great job. Many of them, these kids are discharged, but they carry a backpack of, I read something, an article about a gal who carried a microwave in her backpack to go to college.
So what is going on? Where are they during COVID where are they? Yeah, they do get computers. Maybe if they're in a foster home or in a college. But really, I mean, I had an online summit and it was free talking about new careers the next 10 years. And it was really dynamic. Many of them couldn't get on for some reason they were absent.
Where are they? So that's another issue during this time we have to figure out. How to change a system. And I mean, it, if they have trouble trying to vaccinate all of us well, and they find a way, thank God to vaccinate all of us. Thank God. Maybe they can find a way on how to connect the disconnected. That is my mission.
Passionistas: What are some of the techniques and things you use in these workshops to help these kids get prepared for their journeys?
Judith: There is a curriculum that we've established. And I have an educator who goes through several methods, right of training. Now we realized just with his methods and then having kids there that basically we had to mentor them and train them on basics, how to use the computer, how to get on social media.
How to be interviewed, what is your goal? Just basic stuff. Now, this is very different than residential because residential that's a whole other and we're not there yet because I have to get these tiny homes in and I can place nine kids in the main house, but I really, and staff. But right now I'm thinking in a bigger way, I realize that they don't have the basics.
So I've invited several agencies and the SUNY at New Paul's business center to talk about just basic financial organization. I have a nurse practitioner who is amazing. She talks about wellbeing. What is wellbeing taking care of? A lot of the kids that come to us we take surveys and. We get their feedback.
They are not motivated or they're stressed out. They're worried about finances. So we have all that information and that's how we program our workshops and what they need. Basically. I noticed that a lot of the kids that are coming from New York City up to that area go back home and they can't communicate with their families after they're freshmen in college, they don't know the basics of living outside of home.
So our programming is going to be a little bit different now because we're going to have retreats on those youth that are going to college, but that spent two weeks with us on an orientation. What it is. To get into school, what will the skills they need and that it has to do with wellbeing, mental health, right?
When you're stressed, what do you do? The horrors of drug addiction, alcohol, all of that. Now I know colleges do that and I know social services do that, but when they're in a community of kids that are going to college, and then I have also a group of students that I'm working with that are going to be like mentors to the kids.
Before they come in. They're so excited. This is the first time I'm using this approach because. A lot of them are in homeless shelters and they want to get to college. They don't know how, but our programming has been very didactic. You know, you can't do so much with two days or three different weeks of training.
You have to see them for a longer period of time. So that's what we're aiming for in the summer. Hopefully we can do this. With COVID. We have to be very strict. And with young team with teenagers that are 18, 19, 16, 17, 18, 19, they have to be supervised with the COVID issue. That's a liability. So we've gone from doing workshops there to virtual, which that doesn't work. It doesn't work.
I don't know where they are and the kids that come on, I could see that they have a support, but the ones that I've invited are not there that were in our workshops. It's like a continuum. I think that there's lack of continuity, wherever they are. Lack of technical support has got to be.
And I know that several different outlets, like Time magazines, writing an article on this, several people are writing articles on this. These are the forgotten kids during COVID, but they were forgotten before COVID. I think it's much better that, you know, we see them face to face. Obviously, but we're going to do our best to do what we're doing now.
Like zooming, some of them don't know how to, or don't have a computer. They don't, and some of them don't have enough food. I don't know what's going on with them. Finances, lack of emotional support. This is a big issue that I don't hear it in the news at all. Where are they?
Passionistas: You mentioned the summit. Tell us more about that. When you did it recently, what was it about.
Judith: We did a summit — Future Ready Summit. And it was an overview. It was very interactive. So our participants were able to interact. It was to find out where they're at and what they need. Now they'd have to, again, be screened. They filled out a registration form.
They went online. It was free. And it was all about what their desire is for vocation or college, what they need to do to get there, like an overview. And then also building a, we haven't done the second, third one yet building a resume and interviewing. But most importantly is what are the jobs? That are out there that are $70,000 plus that you don't need a college education for.
It could be detectives or electrical line checking or electrical system checking. I mean, I didn't know that, but a lot of these kids have their own one wants to be a coder. The other one wants to be a social worker. So what do they need to do? This is what's the focus. And the dialogue. And then first of all, to show them how we're changing rapidly to robotics and what kind of jobs are there and the environment, where can they go to school?
Where financially, cause they do get some financial support and a good deal of it, but we can, they sustain themselves during college. What kind of careers there are, what's a knit community that they can work now. Now, some of them said, Oh, Uber, they could work for Uber because some of them were from New York city gardening because there are gardens in Brooklyn and there are all kinds of positions there.
And then I'm also LinkedIn with an agency that does entrepreneur planning. So if they have an idea to say agencies, fantastic, we it's called. We thrive. They actually sponsor them for an entrepreneurial product and design implementation. And I'm working with SUNY business center. The director there comes in to teach them about finance.
These kids don't know what's available for them. So we're, we're trying to do our best with, to link the kids that are. We don't know where they are. We've done a lot of research as to where they are. Many schools don't want to share because they don't know where they are. So how are we supposed to know?
But we start with what we have and then hopefully when we can manage this without, you know, the COVID crisis, we can get them on campus and start a residential program.
Passionistas: Is there a way for young people in need of support to find you and get involved with the program?
Judith: Right now, I have again, linkage agreements with the agencies, but I've reached out to freshmen in the neighboring colleges. And I have got a group of, of kids that are phenomenal. They're actually assisting with community outreach. They're assisting with creating a critical mass list of where are these kids. All right. You could see it's statistically on paper, or we've got a number of these kids, right? Where are they? So I've got students that are working on it.
I also have a Bronx reporter that is going to start working with me and hopefully I can get her to be on the board, but we're going to try to do TV spots, cable or whatever, because kids watch TV if they don't have computer. And I noticed that if you have 15 minutes segments and you, you girls know this, right?
I mean, this is the way to go, but kids watch TV. They don't go to the computer. Anything we can do to get them. Aware and to find out what they need. And as you know, Nancy and Amy is like I don't know how many articles about the Governor Newsom has increased the budget for foster care youth. In many different ways, I mean, he's given social workers more money to take care of them, family resource centers. I mean, he's really acknowledged that. And surveyed 16 social service agencies in this article to keep up with, it says California foster youth face even more challenges and mid pandemic, but it seems to me that he is on it. So I really appreciate what he's doing.
Passionistas: As allies. How can we, and our listeners support what you're doing.
Judith: If anybody knows anyone that has the same passion that I do. I'm looking for a consortium of a group of people that would be willing to sit in a think tank to see how we can solve this issue of connecting the disconnected.
That's number one, number two, anyone interested in marketing because I'm trying to market and raise funds for community center. If anybody knows a boxer that they could connect with, that would be terrific to spearhead this campaign. Basically that's what is needed, but I do need advocates with the same passion and mission, the same passion that I have to move this ahead.
Anybody in the tiny home business that would like to help us plan it because we're thinking about the tiny home on wheels. Cause then you don't need permits at least in California though. So, and then to be aware of when you, in living in your community, have your ears and eyes open because we need to know where they are, where are the kids?
That are discharged from care in the, even if they would just charge two years ago, what's happening in the homeless shelters. Are they there? Where are they? And to, I guess, support your local Congress person to be an advocate for connecting the disconnected. And I really mean that let's change the system.
If they could do this with COVID right, they're doing it. Maybe we could do this for our youth. Maybe we can have a system where we know where everybody is. Yes. Is it possible? It is.
Passionistas: What's your dream for these kids that you're helping?
Judith: That they love themselves and know, you know, whatever past they've had, that they. Love themselves, who they are and they are diamonds. People just have to see that, but they have to know at first, too. I've had such great opportunity and I'm so filled with, I can't get over these kids that I've met that are amazing. They could change the world and they need to have that support. And you know who the foster, the famous are.
I don't have to tell you well, why? Because they had that one person that cared… only one, one, one person that cared enough to say, you can go to college because you're so smart. Even I didn't have a big mouthand you're telling me you're so smart, and this is how you're going to do it, that encouragement.
So that's what I hope for them because it can be done. To see them flourish is an then to come back. You'd never, you very rarely see that when someone comes back to say it's because of being empowered, that changed my life. And this is a girl who was severely abused. I mean physically with her phalanges off the smart kid smart kid. And she was told that aside from all those physical things that happened to her. So there is a transformation that happens when somebody tells you you're worth it.
Passionistas: Thanks for listening to our interview with Judith Halbreich. To learn more about Home of Champions, visit Home fChampionsNY.org.
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