There was a time when nine people lived in Leisha Kidd-Brooks’ small three-bedroom, one bath home in Longview. The mother of three not only cared for her own children, she took in other children to provide them with a safe, happy home — even when it meant not knowing how she was going to pay the bills.
It was a “really rough” time, and few in the community knew because Kidd-Brooks kept a smile on her face, humor in her heart, and a positive attitude wherever she went.
“People see me. They see me smiling, but they have no idea what I’ve been through,” Kidd-Brooks said. “It’s been rough, but I’m a firm believer that if you pray and you stay faithful, God is going to help you.”
Kidd-Brooks serves as the environmental health manager for the city of Longview. Her 15 years with the city have, so far, been book-ended by national tragedies. She started working for the city in 2005 in the middle of Hurricane Katrina. This year, she and her team have helped restaurants keep their doors open and adapt to ever-changing rules and regulations amid the new coronavirus.
In her free time, Kidd-Brooks generously lends her time and talents to a plethora of organizations, including East Texas Court Appointed Special Advocates, which holds a special place in her heart because of her time as a foster parent. East Texas CASA is a nonprofit organization that pairs children in the foster system with a volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocate who works with them to ensure that their safety and needs are met.
Kidd-Brooks moved to Longview with her family when she was 8. The Longview High School graduate went on to attend Texas College in Tyler, where she earned a bachelor of science in biology.
She started working for the city in 2005 as a health inspector, monitoring restaurants, day cares, hospitals, assisted living facilities, grocery stores and a variety of other places to ensure health and safety standards are met.
Eight years ago, she was promoted to environmental health manager, a position in which she oversees a team of seven. Her department annually provides inspections for 800 permits in the city. Additionally, they respond to foodborne illness complaints, visit construction sites to review plans, respond to fire calls for locations that have a permit with the environmental health office, permit mobile food vendors, and attend special events such as Taste of Longview and the Gregg County Fair.
“We do a lot of work. If we’re ever down a person or if we’re behind, I still go out in the field myself,” Kidd-Brooks said. “I wouldn’t ask my staff to do something that I wouldn’t do myself.”
That mentality is just one of the ways she creates a team atmosphere in her department. She says the best advice she ever received was to “maintain an employee mindset.” So, if someone on her staff has an idea, she passes it on and gives them credit. She also listens to the team and, with her sense of humor, strives to make work a fun environment.
“I try to make work fun, not stressful. We have a lot to deal with out in the city so our office life is very fun,” she said. “We work together. I don’t ever make a decision by myself. We’ll have a staff meeting. Although I know I have the final say, people want to be heard and I allow them to do that. I think that’s the sign of a great leader. It’s not to ever put yourself out front, it’s to cultivate another great leader.”
This year, her department has worked even more closely with many local restaurants to help them stay open and adjust to changing regulations amid the new coronavirus. That means paying attention daily to orders from the mayor and governor. This spring, her team divided the city into quadrants and went into the field to inspect and make sure local businesses were prepared to open May 1, meeting restrictions set in place by the governor.
“Prior to that, we had to assess and assist those that chose to stay open, but we had to really focus in on the mom and pops,” Kidd-Brooks said, explaining that franchised businesses often receive guidance from their corporate offices. “The mom and pops wanted to make sure that we were there, ready and available if they had any questions.”
Her team visited local businesses to make sure they had hand-washing and sanitizing stations available and to assess their glove usage. While they couldn’t enforce wearing masks, Kidd-Brooks said they strongly encouraged it. The department also fielded many phone calls.
As the state began to reopen, allowing businesses to open at 25 percent and later increasing capacities, Kidd-Brooks’ department visited local restaurants to help them create seating plans and make sure tables were spaced 6 feet apart to promote social distancing.
While it has a been a stressful time, Kidd-Brooks is no stranger to adapting to changes.
Kidd-Brooks has three children – son, Keelan, 25, who is in the Navy; son, Donovan, 20, who is attending Texas Southern University; and daughter, Maleah, 16, who will enter her senior year at Longview High School in the fall.
In 2016, her world changed. Her home opened up to house nine people after a set of sisters and their three children (a pair of 14-month-old twins and a 2-year-old toddler) showed up on her doorstep. Her oldest son had already left home at the time, but a friend was staying with her family.
“I look back now, and I realize that time was to take my focus off the end of my marriage. It gave me a new purpose, even though it was rough,” she said.
While it was a struggle to care for a household of nine people, Kidd-Brooks said she always made sure to pay her rent and was blessed by an abundance of love from a few people in her life. When she didn’t know how she was going to pay a $600 electric bill, a check appeared in her mailbox one day.
“I would take the kids to church and people would see me with all of them,” said Kidd-Brooks, who attends Red Oak Baptist Church. “There were people who would see us out and they’d just put money in my hand. People just blessed me. They never knew, but when they would walk away, I would get in my car and just cry.”
The sisters and their children stayed with her for 18 months.
Three weeks after they left, she said, she took in three children whose father had been murdered. She was related to them through her ex-husband’s side of the family.
That time, she went through the court process to serve as their foster mother. The children were in her care for about nine months. While they now live with their grandmother, Kidd-Brooks said she remains in their life.
“I realize that everything happens for a reason and a season and it has a purpose. I was worn out, but in my time with God every day I figured that (fostering children) was something he needed me to do, so I stepped up and I did it,” she said.
In going back and forth to court and fostering the children, Kidd-Brooks said she has realized that there aren’t enough foster families. She noted there is a need specifically for more black volunteers.
“So, I just interviewed to become a board member for CASA to bring awareness. There are a lot of people that are becoming empty nesters and they would love to have something to do and that’s a way they can volunteer,” she said. “Now, I can’t imagine my life without those three.”
Kidd-Brooks has volunteered her time, dancing for three years in Blue Jeans and Ball Gowns. The event raises money for East Texas CASA.
In addition to CASA, she has previously volunteered to ride a bull for Junior Achievement’s Denim and Diamonds fundraiser. She has served on the board for HeartsWay Hospice, which provided care to her father. She serves on the Teen Court Board and the board for Mercy Manor, a home for pregnant teens. She serves as the host for the Mayor’s Tent at the city’s Fireworks and Freedom celebration and as the hostess for the Go Giver Gala.
Kidd-Brooks has also been involved with Zonta Club, Partners in Prevention’s mentoring program, served on the Unity and Diversity Committee, Longview High School’s Distinguished Alumni Committee, and Kilgore College’s Culinary Board. She is a member of the Longview Rotary Club, serves on the Boys and Girls Club Board, and volunteers with the YU summit for at-risk teens. She also has been heavily involved in volunteering her time with the Pride Festival.
“That one is very personal to me,” she said of Pride, “because I feel like people are people and you should love them no matter what.”
She’s a member of the Leadership Longview Class of 2015-16, and the immediate past president for the Texas Environmental Health Association. When she took over as president of the state association, Kidd-Brooks said, the organization was on the verge of losing its nonprofit status with the IRS. She had three weeks to turn things around – and she did. The organization retained its status.
While she’s been through periods of her life when she felt like she had no time to herself between work, children, and volunteering, Kidd-Brooks said the moments that bring her the greatest joy and pride involve the children.
Moments like when the children, who were too little to pronounce Leisha, would say, “Love you, Sha, thank you.” The knowledge that her children gave up their time and space to help others, and the time when her son’s friend texted her to thank her for the things that she instilled in him.
“Those are the things that kept me going,” Kidd-Brooks said. “Those moments are the rewards I get.”