Growing up in Puerto Rico with 12 people in a three-room hut with an outhouse, Leah Barker never imagined that one day she would lead an international nonprofit working to lift families like hers out of poverty.
Fast forward to Salt Lake City where Barker, 50, runs an innovative $5 million organization working in rural areas in developing countries.
“I’ve lived it,” says Barker, from her industrial park office. “I watched my mom do it, and I’ve done it. Now I have the privilege of working with others, particularly women, to learn the skills they need to realize their own dreams and break the cycle of poverty.”
Dressed in khakis, T-shirt, and a scarf made by a women’s cooperative in one of “her” villages, Barker credits her success to her mom’s tenacity and being a great role model.
CHOICE Humanitarian Kenya expedition. Chinyavu and Ms. Barker
“My parents divorced when I was 5, and my dad never provided any support,” she said. “With my mom running the show, I knew I was headed somewhere, I just didn’t know where.
“My mom’s mantra was education. She used to tell us that the only need we had was getting an education. ‘If you need shoes,’ she would say, ‘it better be that the school requires them. If you don’t need shoes for school, you don’t need them.”
When her parents split up, her mother took a factory job earning just $500 per month to provide for a family of six. She also went back to school. She finished her high school diploma, got a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s, and finally became an elementary school teacher. “By the time I was in the third grade, she was my English teacher, ” says Barker.
After her own high school graduation, Barker followed in her mother’s footsteps and enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico, but also like her mother, she ended up marrying a “bozo,” as she refers to her first husband. Along the way, she moved to Utah where she dropped out of school to work to pay for his college education and take care of their two children.
“Eventually,” she recalls, “we separated. My mom’s advice? Get back into school.”
Barker listened to her mom and earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. Her first job after college was with the Salt Lake County Housing Authority.
“When I went to the interview, the woman asked why she should hire me instead of the 60 other candidates who were much more qualified. Because, I told her, I’ve lived it. I watched my mother move us out of poverty, and now I’ve done it.” Barker got the job.
After a few years in that position and later with an educational nonprofit, in 2009, Barker became CEO of CHOICE Humanitarian, an international nonprofit working in rural areas of eight developing countries.
According to Barker, the CHOICE Leadership Model of village development focuses on empowering women to create their own path out of poverty. It is an integrated approach incorporating education, health, environment, culture and economic development. It is designed to strengthen local leadership and train others to become leaders.
“Of course, we also work with men and families,” Barker says, “but when you focus on the women, results happen. The moms are the ones who set the examples and raise the standards for their children.”
Since taking over as CEO, Barker has increased donations each year by $750,000.
“Every dollar donated to CHOICE is leveraged by a multiplier of five, and the organization is debt-free,” she says. “We practice what we teach.”
Her approach to fundraising is similar to the methodology CHOICE uses in villages.
“The point of our work,” she says, “is for villages to become self-sustaining and self-developing. The same is true for CHOICE as an organization.”
Barker is referring to an innovative approach to fundraising. Traditionally, nonprofits rely on the generosity of individual donors and grants. While CHOICE utilizes this approach, it also engages with corporations in two ways: one, they take company employees into the field to spend a week working alongside villagers on projects that the locals have determined to be critical to their path of self-reliance. Projects might include digging wells, building schools, health clinics, or even cook stoves.
The second approach with its corporate partners is one that helps to establish markets for products made in the villages. A leader in essential oils, doTERRA, funds CHOICE’S work to train small farmers in sustainable agricultural practices. The small farmers, in turn, grow environmentally green crops that are then sold to doTERRA at fair-market value.
“This provides economic opportunity for the villagers, and is helping CHOICE become a self-sustaining nonprofit,” Barker says. “Everyone wins.”
According to Barker, taking people into the fie ld on expeditions is a life-changing experience. “You get to experience true partnership with others. You find it isn’t about us helping them. It is about people helping people. That’s why we run expeditions for college students, families, even singles groups. As my mom used to say, we are all in this together.”
For companies, going on an expedition also creates team bonding across all levels.
“Being a socially responsible company is important these days, especially to younger employees and consumers,” says Barker.
Another example of a corporate partner she cites is the clothing and home furnishing retailer, DownEast, whose primary market is Millennials.
“In seven years, DownEast has contributed over $200,000 through employee gifts and corporate matching and the have sent their employees, including their founders, on four expeditions,” Barker says. “This year, the village DownEast adopted on their first trip has officially graduated from our program.”
Rich Israelsen, COO, DownEast in a CHOICE Humanitarian village adopted by DownEast.
What does Barker’s mother think of her daughter’s success?
“She is so proud,” says Barker, “because it’s all about giving back and passing on what I learned from her.”
Besides the importance of an education, what other lessons did Barker learn from her mom that she now passes along to young mothers?
“Be a good role model – your children are learning from you how to become adults.”
From L to R: Harvest Fedor, Ms. Barker’s niece, Libbi Meissner, Ms. Barker’s sister, Marta Carrero, Ms. Barker’s mother, and Raven Fedor, Ms. Barker’s niece.
I love telling people's stories, finding out what makes them tick, how they view and approach the world. What inspires me most are ordinary people doing extra-ordinary things.