Getting To Know Our New CEO. A Conversation with Dr. Leah Newkirk Meunier
It’s a been a whirlwind of a few months since Dr. Leah Newkirk Meunier assumed the CEO position at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas. With 2022 well underway however, Leah is settling into her new role. She is excited about the agency’s future, ready to get to know the community she is serving, and ready to make a difference.
Raised in Nashville, Tennessee, Leah grew up in a family that was involved in volunteering. “My dad traveled with his work and was gone a lot,” said Leah. “My mom didn’t work outside the home, but she did a ton of volunteer work. Together, we delivered meals, adopted families for Christmas, and volunteered at church. That was probably my introduction to philanthropy.”
Leah attended an all-girls high school along with her sister, her only sibling. She completed her undergraduate work at Tulane University where she received a B.S. in Psychology. She then attended The University of Texas at Austin where she received both an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Human Development and Family Sciences.
“Once I finished my Ph.D. at U.T., I stayed there and taught Child Development classes for a while,” said Leah. “We have a family full of teachers. My sister teaches Early Childhood, and my husband, Tommy, is a 5th grade teacher at Mills Elementary.”
While teaching at U.T., Leah volunteered with United Way’s early childhood program, ultimately taking a staff position, and spending more than seven years with the organization. “I didn’t know I would end up working in a non-profit organization,” said Leah, “but I liked what I was doing. I liked the real-life application of everything I’d learned, and making the lives of young children better, rather than just talking about it.”
Her passion for helping kids actually began during her undergraduate years studying with a psychology professor who became one of her mentors. “A lot of his research was on adolescent development, particularly with boys of color,” said Leah. “That’s where I started to gain a deeper understanding of the importance of those early years, and the ways in which a child’s support systems impact their development and their trajectory in life. Which is basically, the kind of thing we work on here at BBBS.”
Her graduate studies continued, and extended, this interest to the early childhood years. “We looked at all of the things that can set you up for success in life,” said Leah, “as well as the things that can be potential barriers.”
Leah’s next position at Texas Workforce Solutions provided perspective on the other end of the developmental spectrum and the young adult and adult years. “That position allowed me to focus on post-secondary education, and on getting adults into job training so that they could get better positions and have better lives.”
“In addition to providing perspective on the continuum of human development, my jobs at United Way and at Workforce Solutions also allowed me to work with a lot of non-profits and educational institutions,” said Leah, “which gave me an understanding of the Austin non-profit community, and the difference nonprofits were making.”
Leah joined the BBBS family after having heard great things about BBBS’ work in the community and seeing the solid foundation that the agency had established. “After seeing the difficulties faced by people trying to get jobs as adults, I wanted to get back to working on setting kids up for success earlier in life.”
Leah also understands the power of mentoring, having had several important mentors in her own life. She points to Professor Mike who inspired her to pursue graduate studies and who helped her to see her own potential, as well as her research professor, Ted, who helped her navigate the ins and outs of doctoral work. “And then, there’s Sue at United Way, who stood up for policy change even when it wasn’t popular, and who helped to prepare me for the non-profit world.”
All of this preparation and study have fueled Leah’s excitement about Big Brothers Big Sisters’ work and the agency’s future.
“I’m excited to think about our future as an agency,” said Leah. “With the pandemic, nonprofits in our community have been in survival mode for a long time while also helping populations in crisis. Now, we can begin to move forward and to think creatively about what we what we want to do next and how best to help the community. We have a 50-year legacy that will always stay with us. Now we can begin to consider new adaptations that we’ll have the chance to develop together. I think that’s so exciting and invigorating. I am excited about what’s ahead.”
In her down time, Leah enjoys floral design. “It’s a relaxing, creative outlet,” she said. “I also enjoy reading, attending my kids’ sporting events on the weekends, vacationing with my family, and participating in half-marathons with my husband. I’ve participated in about 20 races so far.”
As she looks forward, Leah says that she is eager to meet a lot of the people that she hasn’t had a chance to meet due to the pandemic. “It is wonderful to have so many longtime agency supporters who share stories about BBBS’ past and the agency’s legacy and impact. It is also exciting to meet so many young, upcoming philanthropists and volunteers who are engaged in our work and with our events,” said Leah. “That wide range of support is wonderful.”
“I feel really lucky,” Leah concluded. “The agency is strong. We have a wonderful combination of tenured staff and new fresh faces, which provides a valuable combination of experience and innovation. We also have a very strong and supportive board, as well as a host of volunteers, donors, and community partners who are eager to make an even greater difference for kids in our community. I think that, together, it’s going to be a wonderful year.”