Person of the Week
Leigh Curtis Higgins: A Life of Helping the Vulnerable
Leigh Curtis Higgins has spent years helping the vulnerable, even volunteering to work in Niger for the Peace Corps; today she works at the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven and volunteers her time as vice president of the board of directors for The Madison Foundation. (Photo courtesy of of Leigh Curtis Higgins )
Helping one person at a time, one day at a time, one endeavor at a time can make an impact that lasts a lifetime.
Leigh Curtis Higgins sees that opportunity to help one person at a time in her professional job as well as her volunteer work. She works as senior director for professional development and for the Executive Office at The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven and volunteers her time as a member of the board at The Madison Foundation.
But even before she began working at either foundation, Leigh embarked on a trip to change lives an ocean away. Right after college, she joined the Peace Corps where she served the women of Niger for three years.
In her soft-spoken and composed manner, she talks about her desire to help the vulnerable.
The Peace Corps
Leigh explains that the practice of her father, who was a minister, of welcoming people of other nationalities into their home gave her the opportunity to expand her perspective.
“We were always being exposed as children to people from other parts of the world and it always intrigued me. But it also made me see that the world is bigger,” she recalls.
That interest led her to join the Peace Corps and to volunteer in Niger, a nation in Western Africa. She went with five other women who were nutritionists and they underwent the necessary training to do the work.
“I worked in a rural health clinic, and I worked with a midwife and the nurses. So, I would assist the midwife with prenatal exams. I would work with the women after they had their children,” she says. “The babies come in and [we] do a well-baby clinic, weighing, and things like that. And in addition to that, my primary role was to help them to learn different porridges to make for their babies.”
She points out that while nutritionists in the United States talk about changes in lifestyle or allergy issues, the work of nutritionists in Niger focuses more on sustenance and survival.
She learned that in Niger, a pregnant woman who was still nursing a young infant would often stop breastfeeding to take care of herself for her coming baby. The problem lies in the fact that an infant who was breastfeeding would not have been introduced to any new foods other than breast milk. Leigh was tasked to help the mothers introduce new foods to their children.
“My job was to help them see that they needed to introduce additional foods, not just breastfeeding. And then if you could do that and introduce basically progressive weaning, then the chances of their child surviving were greater,” she says.
Leigh served with the Peace Corps for two years, which is common among volunteers, and then opted to extend for a third year. In the first two years of her service, she learned both French, the country’s official language, and Hausa, one of several national languages.
“I felt like [in] the third year, language wasn’t a barrier for me. So, that’s why I felt, ‘OK, I can do more good…work,’” she explains.
Niger was a particularly difficult country in which to work because, as Leigh points out, “It is probably one of the poorest, if not the poorest, because it is landlocked and it’s mostly desert.”
Leigh’s insight is not an exaggeration.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) publishes a report on its Human Development Index, a summary measure of average achievement in three key dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, knowledge, and a decent standard of living. According to the UNDP’s 2018 Statistical Update of Human Development Indices and Indicators, Niger is at the bottom of the list of 189 countries.
The Peace Corps established its program in Niger in 1962 but suspended operations in 2011 because of the unstable military and political situation in the country.
Working for Nonprofits
Upon returning to the United States, Leigh worked professionally in nonprofit organizations, including the Key Program, a community-based program for troubled youth in Massachusetts.
“When they closed institutions in Massachusetts—I’m talking about institutions that housed children—when they closed them somewhere in the 1970s, they had to have something for these kids, these vulnerable kids who were at risk. And they started community-based programs, which meant that the kids could live at home, but we would come by and check on them. It’s like a wraparound service,” she explains.
At the Key Program, she advanced from caseworker to senior supervisor.
It was also there that she met Leslie, her husband of nearly 30 years. Together, they have a son, Carrick, 26, and a daughter, Caeleigh, 24.
She and her family moved to Maryland where they lived for 10 years. She worked at the Choice Program at UMBC Shriver Center, a community-based, family-oriented youth development and dropout-prevention program.
She also obtained her master’s degree in education from Goucher College in Towson, Maryland.
The family moved to Madison in 2003. In 2006, she started working at The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, climbing the ranks from associate philanthropic officer to senior director of professional development and for the executive office today. In 2014, she obtained her doctor of education leadership degree from Southern Connecticut State University.
Her volunteer work for The Madison Foundation began in 2011. She served as the president of the board of directors from 2015 to 2017; today she serves as the vice president.
A community foundation is a nonprofit, philanthropic organization composed of permanent funds established by separate donors and distributes its endowment funds for charitable purposes to benefit the residents of a defined geographic area.
“In a community foundation, you can have many funds from many different people. So that’s the value and, I think, what makes a community foundation exciting and really important for each community, because when you have a community foundation, it all comes back to Madison. In our by-laws, if you look at our website, part of our requirements for grants is they have to be serving Madison or in Madison,” Leigh says.
She also explains, “Philanthropy is about helping people—donors—tell their story of who they are that will last and have lasted in impact long after they’re gone. So, for example, if you want it to be about helping out journalists in a time when journalism is going through all these different changes…or journalists who are putting their lives at risk in other countries to report, if you’ve set up a fund to support students who are going into this field, we would support them through scholarships, [and] when you are no longer here, those people whose lives you’ve touched, will forever be changed.”
The people of Madison, says Leigh, should know that “they have in their community available to them a foundation whose primary responsibility is to this town and to our community and to make our community better.”
She says that just as The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven seeks to make things a little better in the Greater New Haven community, The Madison Foundation seeks to make things better in Madison.
The Madison Foundation does this “by making sure that donors know who we are, knowing that we invest their funds, and that we are putting that money back out to the community to help one person, two people, [or] an organization to make a difference to those who are vulnerable,” she says.
For more information about the Peace Corps, visit www.peacecorps.gov.
For more information about The Madison Foundation, visit www.themadisonfoundation.org.
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