Judith Halbreich: Building Champions in the Foster Care System
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. She’s also 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.
The organization is housed in the former home and training facility of heavyweight boxing world champion Floyd Patterson, which also served as a training camp for boxing champions Muhammad Ali, Ingemar Johansson and Patterson’s son, Tracy Harris Patterson. Judith is continuing the site’s legacy of creating champions by supporting the youth she serves in their journeys to success.
Here’s an excerpt from our interview with Judith.
Passionistas: 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 disadvantaged 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 the impetus for starting this program without a doubt. That was 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.
Passionistas: So how did 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? So I went with her and we decided to go to an off shore to a small, tiny island. 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. And I fell off a bridge on the bike.
I came up and my daughter said to me, and 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… and then write your book.”
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. 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, 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, I have the research to confirm this 42% don't complete high school.
So this particular organization that I created is to screen foster care or now disadvantaged 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, some of them have this resiliency to adapt they’re tuned into details.
Why? You have to go from one home to the next. So when that happens, 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, the ones that can survive in a college atmosphere and that's what they want.
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? Because 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 disadvantaged 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 screening.
To learn more about Home of Champions, visit HomeofChampionsNY.org.
Listen to our entire interview with Judith here.