A love of children and a commitment to community drew a St. Charles couple together more than three decades ago—that same love later helped them survive a personal tragedy.
Rick and Mary Leach met by happenstance through work after each moved across the country for Jet America Airlines. Mary, born and raised in Alaska, moved to California to get into the airline business. Rick, a Midwest boy from St. Charles, moved to California for a new management position. They became friends first, and found a mutual love for volunteerism and giving back to the community.
Rick was heavily involved in volunteer work back home in St. Charles, and he wanted to continue that in California.
“My mother volunteered for everything, whether it was at church or for the March of Dimes,” said Rick, who also volunteered for the Kidney Foundation, cystic fibrosis, and muscular dystrophy. “As a kid, my mother instilled in me the importance of volunteering and giving back.”
Rick found a short-term group home for children that he fell in love with.
“I noticed that on the weekends when all the other kids had families come to visit, this one kid (Shawn) never had anybody,” said Rick. “I quickly decided that I was going to start coming and being there just for him.”
Mary started going with Rick to visit Shawn, and the three of them started hanging out regularly. The first time out together was a drive-in movie—a first for Mary.
“It doesn’t get dark in the summer and it’s too cold in the winter,” she said.
Shortly after, the couple had their first ‘official’ date at the Lionel Richie concert. And exactly one year later the couple said their wedding vows.
“Shawn was around us all the time, so it was a very odd courtship for Mary and I because we’re starting to get to know each other, but we have this nine-year-old who’s very needy, but at the same time really a great influence on our lives,” said Rick.
Shawn became an important part of the couple’s lives, so much that he chose the engagement ring for Mary—and proposed to her.
“I wasn’t going to propose until a couple of days later when it was just Mary and I, but we get to Mary’s apartment and Shawn grabs the ring and runs up Mary’s steps ahead of me,” said Rick. “And it’s Shawn who asks Mary if she will marry us.”
And while it was not at all like Rick planned, it was even more special when Mary said yes. A few months after the engagement, Rick petitioned for guardianship of Shawn. Since the couple was not married, it would take another year following the marriage before Shawn could officially be adopted.
“He was our son all along,” said Rick. “We were not going to let Shawn get forgotten.”
Just before the adoption Rick, Mary, and Shawn moved back to St. Charles to be close to family. The family expanded over the years when the couple had four additional children: Sarah, Jennifer, Kate, and Ricky.
As a teen, Shawn volunteered as a peer counselor for Youth In Need.
“He was one of the first peer counselors,” said Rick. “He would befriend kids in the program and he was very effective.”
In 1994, the family experienced a great tragedy. At the age of 19, Shawn passed away to suicide.
“He had a lot of demons from abuse in his childhood,” said Rick.
After Shawn’s death, Rick said family and friends offered support, but there were no words to express the loss.
“Nobody really knows what to say, they want to help you. We have amazing friends and family…but they could never really relate to what we were going through,” said Rick.
Jim Brown, former executive director for Youth In Need (YIN), reached out to the family and helped Rick and Mary learn to channel the grief.
“You never get over it, you become different,” said Rick. “You learn to have the strength to talk about it. You learn how to channel that grief in a different way that makes you stronger.”
So the couple decided to channel that devastating grief and focus their energy on working with the youth. Rick has been on the board of directors at YIN for the last 25 years, and Mary worked with teen parents.
“When you see these kids from not the best circumstances, how they start maturing–even being able to live on their own and having their own successes in life–that’s really rewarding,” said Mary.
The entire family got involved with the teens participating in the transitional living program.
“They embraced it and thought it was an adventure,” said Rick. “They got to meet new and neat people.”
The family would visit the teens at the Youth In Need transitional homes for game night or dinner. Or the Leach family would all go bowling, see a movie or play demolition ball.
“We didn’t act like it was a chore or a duty. It was just something we wanted to do,” said Mary. “We made it pleasant. We made it fun.”
“The kids just thought it was a good time,” said Rick.
Over the years, Mary and Rick were honored as a Celebration of Youth Honoree for Youth In Need, and the couple was also named Volunteer of the Year.
In addition to Youth In Need, the family has been involved with numerous charities, including Five Acres, St. Jude, Village of the Blue Rose, and Community Living Inc.
On March 3, Rick was honored with the Legacy Award from Community Living Inc. for his decades of community service to the organization.
Youth In Need also named an annual award after Shawn, which the couple introduces and hands out each year at the Legacy Ball. Shawn was an artist who loved to draw and used his art as a form of therapy. His photo hangs on the wall in the Art Gallery at the YIN corporate office.
“He has continued to impact lives even after he passed away,” said Rick.
About eight years after Shawn’s death, the family received some shocking news. Jim Brown came to Rick’s office and shared that there was a young woman who thought that Shawn was the father to her nine-year-old daughter.
The family was skeptical, but since Shawn was adopted, the family couldn’t do a DNA test. Rick asked the mother to send a picture of the little girl.
“They sent a picture…and they looked like twins,” said Rick. “Mary and I knew immediately that this had to be his daughter. We had no doubt, but we needed proof.”
When Shawn passed away, the family donated his corneas. Grasping at straws, Rick contacted the hospital to see if there was a plasma sample that could be tested for DNA. The lab technician explained to Rick that the samples are spun down, and that only the white blood cells are kept. The red blood cells house the DNA. Rick asked if she would just check. Three days later, the hospital called the family.
“She said I cannot explain it; I have tens of thousands of these samples but for some reason this sample did not get spun down,” said Rick. The lab was able to retrieve DNA from the sample, to prove that the child was in fact, Shawn’s daughter.
“It was just a crazy blessing,” said Rick, whose granddaughter is now 25.
Shawn passed away within the first year of his daughter’s life, and he was unaware of her existence. The family shared all of their memories of Shawn with the daughter he never had the chance to meet.
“We’ve always kept Shawn very present in our lives,” said Rick. “He was our son. He wasn’t our adopted son. He was our son.”
When the couple isn’t out volunteering their time, talent and treasure, they have found a new love—grandchildren. Rick and Mary now have three granddaughters who have shown the couple the joys of being grandparents.
“We knew it would be fun (to be grandparents), but it’s beyond fun,” said Rick.
“Seeing our oldest granddaughter grow up and mature into an awesome adult is really satisfying,” said Mary.
So their love of children, and of Community…continues.