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Former OU dean becomes Appalachian Children Coalition's first director

Céilí Doyle
The Columbus Dispatch
Randy Leite is the Appalachian Children Coalition's first director and is dedicated to advocating on behalf of southeast Ohio's youngest residents.

Randy Leite wears a lot of hats.

Since 2009, the children's advocate has been Ohio University's dean of the College of Health Sciences and Professions. He serves on the state's Commission on Fatherhood and sits on the board of the Children's Defense Fund.

He honed his craft in higher education as a professor in the field of human health and family studies at Bowling Green State University, and as an assistant dean on Ohio State's Marion campus.

Last week, the 61-year-old retired from OU, but not before picking up a new gig, this time as the Appalachian Children Coalition's executive director.

"My wife joked that I could barely step away from OU before starting something else," he said.

The ACC is a nonprofit agency recently created and dedicated to advancing resources and opportunities for children in southeast Ohio. The board is comprised of mental health and educational professionals who are seeking public and private solutions to meet children's needs.

The organization, however, has been limited in its reach because many of its members hold other jobs and obligations, and it was in search of a director who could dedicate full attention to the ACC's mission.

And, in the last few months, the coalition was able to secure funding for the position through a variety of donations.

For Leite, it was a perfect fit.

"I'm really excited to have the opportunity to make a difference," he said. "I think one challenge we have, as a society, is that we have a number of entities and number of systems that are focused on children, but they tend to be not well-connected."

Leite's goal is to use the coalition's connections to unite school districts, health care facilities and social service agencies, both in working with one another and in urging state and federal legislators to allot more resources to southeast Ohio.

"The question is: How do you support people but also give them the resources and skills that they can run to their own opportunities?" he said. "The challenge is so many people in government … I just don’t think they understand the reality of these kids."

Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, an ACC board member, said Leite is incredibly capable and is excited for his work to begin.

"He comes from a distinguished academic background, but during that time he’s been at OU, he’s certainly demonstrated really deep concern for the region, for Appalachian children especially," Strickland said.

Leite's wife, Theresa, a nurse midwife, said her husband has always been dedicated to service, especially the needs of children.

He created a rural community-university partnership at OU called Kids On Campus, which introduced local children to the college and the pursuit of higher education, she said. But he also made sure that students in the college had experience with communities in the region, too.

"As dean, Randy made a commitment that students coming in from mostly affluent families would experience Appalachia and do what they could to serve while they were there," Theresa said.

A Westerville native, Leite said he understands the importance of communicating to people outside Appalachia that not all Ohioans grow up with easy access to education, internet service, job training, or even food.

"I, and most of the people in the legislature, grew up in relatively comfortable, middle-class environments without a lot of the challenges that I see children in Appalachia Ohio face," he said.

A parent of three, and a former foster parent to two, Leite also spent his first year at OU volunteering as a CASA guardian, or court-appointed special advocate, in Athens County.

He remembers representing three young children from The Plains who were placed in foster care while their parents were struggling to get by and, amid that chaos, the family's trailer was gutted by a fire.

"It pulls at your heartstrings to see kids who, through no fault of their own, are suffering," he said. "And it reinforces for a lot of kids there’s this cascade of things that happen — what fixes one thing breaks another or creates other issues."

Tom Davis, the ACC's board president, worked with Leite at OU and said he has never met one person with a bad word to say about the former dean.

As a professor emeritus in counselor education, Davis said he knows Leite recognizes the unique mental-health challenges children in southeast Ohio face and is up to the task.

"We’re not just looking at kids with serious, chronic mental illness, but there are just kids who live lives of quiet desperation," Davis said. "I know that Randy understands that, and his ability to sniff out grants that parallel our needs is something we’ve been lacking." 

Despite the uphill battle, Leite has a lot of hope for the future.

"We have a governor who has stated unequivocally he supports children and wants to help," Leite said. "I think the opportunities are there, they’re just waiting to be harnessed.

"I don’t see stepping into the coalition role as having to build from the ground up, I see harnessing opportunities that are sitting there and finding out how to make them real."

Céilí Doyle is a Report for America corps member and covers rural issues in Ohio for The Dispatch. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation at https://bit.ly/3fNsGaZ.

cdoyle@dispatch.com

@cadoyle_18