Making use of her well-honed business chops, this 1976 BYU Marriott grad has spent retirement focused on improving her community—one creative solution at a time.
Deborah VanLeeuwen didn’t know what to expect when a coworker quietly entered her office and shut the door. The ensuing conversation was one of the most difficult that she had ever been involved in.
Her colleague had been the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace.
As the HR manager of a midsize food manufacturing company, VanLeeuwen knew exactly how the incident needed to be handled. Hesitation would be unforgivable, and weighing the power of the parties involved would be irrelevant. The serious allegations deserved to be fully investigated, and, most important, the victim had the right to be heard.
VanLeeuwen sprang into action, meticulously managing interviews, disciplinary action, and documentation. At the end of it all, VanLeeuwen received a thank-you note that she remembers to this day. It began, “You are the first one who believed me.”
“That’s the way it’s supposed to work,” VanLeeuwen says.
While the incident occurred many years before the current #MeToo movement, it perfectly captures VanLeeuwen’s passion for and lifelong commitment to solving problems and serving others—a passion that empowers her to make a difference.
“When I see something that is out of order, something that needs addressing, something that’s not right, I jump in and start problem-solving,” says the business management grad. “That’s just my personality.”
In fact, after retiring in 2006, VanLeeuwen dedicated herself to full-time philanthropy, working with the Wasatch Community Foundation to fund scholarships for high school students in Utah’s Wasatch County. Recently, the human resources pro added another major project to her to-do list: raising more than $250,000 to build Transitions Chalet, a resource center and interim housing solution for women and children in the Heber Valley.
When asked why she has spent more than a decade focused solely on service, her answer comes quickly. “A very rewarding part of my life has been to step outside of my little comfort zone to learn about other people and their struggles,” VanLeeuwen says.
It’s a skill she learned close to home.
Up in the Air
The second of three children, VanLeeuwen spent her early years in Encino, a Los Angeles neighborhood in California’s sunny San Fernando Valley. Her father, Herbert Goodrich, who’d earned his wings flying a Jolly Rogers bomber in World War II, transitioned to civilian life as a United Airlines pilot. VanLeeuwen’s mother, Hilda, also had an aviation background. After serving in the Coast Guard during the war, Hilda worked as a Trans World Airlines flight attendant before getting married and becoming a stay-at-home mom.
Devout Protestants, VanLeeuwen’s parents worked hard to instill in their children a sense of duty and service. Throughout VanLeeuwen’s childhood, the family was active in a number of community organizations and service clubs. Herbert even established a scholarship program for his high school in rural Nebraska and contacted members of his graduating class monthly until he was ninety-seven years old.
“I think it came from them serving during the war,” VanLeeuwen says of her parents’ sense of obligation to their community. “When you find somebody who needs you, you jump in and help.”
After VanLeeuwen’s father was promoted to captain in the early sixties, the family left Southern California for New Jersey so he could fly in and out of the John F. Kennedy International Airport. But after a few years of frigid nor’easters, Hilda had experienced enough snow to last a lifetime, and the family moved back to the West Coast. They settled into a booming middle-class neighborhood in Northridge, California, where VanLeeuwen graduated from high school.
Bolstered by America’s postwar economy, the neighborhood was home to an eclectic mix of successful professionals, including business executives, hospital administrators, and architects.
One neighbor in particular made a powerful impression on VanLeeuwen. “The woman who lived next door owned a mascara company, and her husband was the vice president at Baskin-Robbins,” recalls VanLeeuwen, who spent her summers working at the mascara company. “I envisioned myself as a businesswoman like her and knew that would require a business degree.”
So when the time came to choose a university, VanLeeuwen wanted to attend one with a strong business program. The choice fell between San Diego State University, the University of Colorado Boulder, and a huge wild card: BYU. “At the time, I didn’t know anything about the LDS Church,” VanLeeuwen notes.
How did the school make her radar? A handsome young man in the neighborhood was headed to the Provo campus, VanLeeuwen says, laughing. When her older sister was trying to select a college, VanLeeuwen told her, “You go there and introduce me to this guy!”
Her parents had no qualms about their daughters attending a school that was outside of their faith tradition.
“It was a violent time on college campuses,” VanLeeuwen remembers of the early seventies. “BYU was a conservative school, so they encouraged us.”
VanLeeuwen followed her sister to Provo in 1972. She lived in May Hall and joined a sorority that made a lasting impact on her life. “It was through the association with those girls and their testimonies that I joined the Church,” VanLeeuwen says.
She was baptized midway through her junior year on 14 December 1974. Her parents traveled from California to attend her baptism.
As for the young man who inspired the journey to BYU, nothing came of that sisterly scheme. Instead, VanLeeuwen met her future husband, Spencer, during her second semester. The pair married in 1978.
Leading the Way
Nearly forty-six years after graduation, VanLeeuwen still regularly thinks about the valuable lessons she learned at BYU, including the challenges of being a trailblazer. Like many alumnae of her generation, she was often one of only a handful of women in her upper business classes, and she felt a deep responsibility to perform well.
During one especially challenging course, she failed the midterm essay. VanLeeuwen berated herself over the shortcoming. “Then in talking to the professor, he made me feel even worse, telling me that my work was horrible,” she remembers.
Feeling like there was no way to recover, VanLeeuwen considered the possibility of taking an incomplete in the course, but in order to do so, she would have to be diagnosed with a disability by a counselor. VanLeeuwen called home for advice.
Her mother had a simple answer: “Let’s get out of here.”
That response wasn’t unusual. “My mother pursued her dreams, and she didn’t let anything hold her back,” VanLeeuwen says, explaining her mother’s determination to leave the family farm where she was born to see the world. “She did a lot of traveling, and that was part of my upbringing. She would just say, ‘Let’s go on a trip.’ Then we’d visit Machu Picchu or Russia or Hawaii.”
So the pair took a trip to Hungary and Czechoslovakia over a school break. When VanLeeuwen returned to Provo, she felt refreshed and ready to give the class one more try. She took the final exam in the professor’s office. The grade: an A.
“It was an experience I’ll never forget,” VanLeeuwen says. “I sensed that the professor saw me as not being capable. That probably impacted me in terms of how I need to help others, how I want to support and encourage them.”
Of course, a determination to advocate for herself and others wasn’t the only thing VanLeeuwen took from her university experience. Her perspective on leadership began to take shape—a perspective that has served her well in both career and philanthropic efforts.
“Surround yourself with good people who are positive to the utmost,” VanLeeuwen advises. “I find that being among good people within my areas of service motivates me because you are lifting one another.”
And that is exactly how the resource center Transitions Chalet came into being.
A Shared Responsibility
While assisting with the Wasatch Community Foundation’s charity golf tournament, an annual fête that raises money for college scholarships, VanLeeuwen stopped to talk with a group of female foundation members. The conversation turned to a compelling topic not normally associated with the back nine: homelessness.
“One of our board members told us about a young woman who would have been homeless if she didn’t have family support,” VanLeeuwen says.
As the conversation progressed, the women found themselves asking a question: What about the rising number of women and children in Utah who don’t have family to help them face the difficulties of domestic violence, job loss, skyrocketing housing costs, or unplanned pregnancies?
“Many people don’t know these situations exist in our valley,” VanLeeuwen says. “So we started talking and brainstorming. That’s how women solve problems, isn’t it?”
The foundation women, who formed an experienced coalition of community volunteers and business veterans, hatched a plan to address this particular hole in the fabric of their community. Choosing the name—Transitions Chalet—was the easiest part,
VanLeeuwen says, due to Heber’s alpine landscape and the organization’s goal to be much more than a shelter.
In addition to offering short-term housing, the chalet is slated to be a one-stop resource center that addresses educational benefits, healthcare, counseling, and job training. “Our intent is to help eliminate generational poverty,” VanLeeuwen explains. These programs will be made possible by partnerships developed with United Way, Utah Valley University, and the Wasatch County School District, among others.
Most important, however, the chalet will offer residents a support system. “I have always told my children that I would give them the tools to be successful,” VanLeeuwen says. “The chalet takes a similar approach. It’s about giving these women the tools they need to fulfill their dreams and their potential.”
While the volunteers have made progress thanks to the pledges of local businesses, there is still a long way to go before they meet their goal of securing a location by fall 2018.
“When it comes to people giving money, they typically need to have an emotional attachment to the cause,” VanLeeuwen explains. “I understand that. Personally, I like to think of community service as working within our neighborhoods. We’re responsible for one another.”
To help make that emotional connection, the chalet team has partnered with a talented cohort of BYU interns. For the last three semesters, the students have assisted with the group’s website (transitionschalet.org) and external outreach efforts.
Throughout VanLeeuwen’s career—ranging from telecommunications sales in Las Vegas in the eighties to HR and management roles at Utah-based companies in the nineties and early two thousands—she has developed business chops that are valuable in many settings. “You’re able to serve in a variety of capacities if you understand financial accuracy, meeting agendas, and project organization,” she notes.
VanLeeuwen is also quick to point out that she had help from her husband along the way. Spencer has always supported her career and philanthropic efforts. “In some relationships, you might not say, ‘I want my husband to represent me on a business trip, but I really have sent him when I couldn’t make it,” VanLeeuwen adds.
And when VanLeeuwen was traveling for union negotiation meetings or spending extra time at the office on a big project, Spencer pitched in and took care of the home responsibilities. “There was balance and harmony,” VanLeeuwen says.
Plus, VanLeeuwen never shied away from bringing her three daughters—now in their twenties and thirties—with her to work. “They can remember being in the office with the calculator and typewriter,” she says. “Now my granddaughter is doing the same. I think giving your children exposure to your career is a good thing.”
Watching young women gain that familiarity and confidence gives VanLeeuwen hope in the age of #MeToo, and she says the answer to the end of workplace harassment is simple: we need more women in leadership and business.
The prospects of that happening look bright, says VanLeeuwen, who teaches sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds in her Sunday School class. “The girls are saying, ‘I’m going to be a biochemist’ and talking about fantastic opportunities. I hope they never lose momentum or resiliency in their pursuits,” VanLeeuwen says. “They don’t see closed doors.”
And neither does VanLeeuwen. When you ask her about the future, she sees endless possibilities for service and solving problems. “There are so many areas that need improvement,” she says. “I don’t know which direction I might go, but my eyes are always open to things that need to be done.”
Article Written by Meghan Hendrickson
Photographed by Bradley Slade
About the Author
Megan Hendrickson started her career in magazines before merging into the tech lane. She currently lends her red pen to a Los Angeles–based web hosting company, where she oversees content marketing and social media efforts.