There was the time when her phone rang late at night. It was Jamie, calling from — was it Uganda that time? Rwanda?
“It was somewhere in Africa, the one time I didn’t go with him, and he calls me in the middle of the night to say he’s on a bus in the middle of an infectious-disease zone, and the bus just slid off the road,” said Birch, executive director of Colorado’s health care policy and financing department.
“He woke me up to say, ‘Here are our coordinates; can you call the Centers for Disease Control to see what we should do? We have all these people on the bus, and they’re exhausted and cranky.’ So I had to call the CDC, and then call Jamie back and tell him, ‘Keep everyone on the bus! Don’t get off! Don’t touch anything!’ He’s always out there, on the edge of doing great things, and I’m the one he calls. And I can never say no, because he’s always dead-on with the assessment of a problem that needs attending.”
Tall, with a swath of red-blond hair and a high-wattage smile, Van Leeuwen, 40, is the son of two Denver educators. A 2013 Fulbright scholar, he graduated in 1996 from Tulane University and has two master’s degrees, plus a Ph.D. in public policy from the University of Colorado at Denver.
In 2006, the Denver Business Journal named him in its “Forty Under 40 to Watch,” and in 2011, Out Front magazine named him a leader in the gay and lesbian community.
He began drawing national attention shortly after Roxanne White, then president of Urban Peak, recruited him to lead the agency’s street outreach program for homeless youths.
In 2003, his interest in what he calls “innovating interventions” led him and White to establish non-clinic-based services to research and test for intravenous drug use and sexually transmitted disease as part of Van Leeuwen’s doctoral dissertation.
“I met Jamie when he was still with Urban Peak, and I just saw this remarkable young man who was filled with optimism about solving the problems of the world,” said Sage Hospitality CEO Walter Isenberg.
“It wasn’t just his youth. Optimism is in his DNA. Jamie will do just about anything to help a philanthropic cause.”
Van Leeuwen seems to live his life at a dead sprint between tightly scheduled policy meetings and ambitious events. He sleeps only three or four hours a night. The rest of his waking hours are divided between his work for the governor’s office, his leadership retreat in Uganda, and training for marathons: He’s run the New York City marathon twice.
Through Denver’s Road Home, he helped organize Project Homeless Connect, an annual jobs and services fair where homeless families get medical evaluations, haircuts, prospects for affordable housing, job leads, meals and other services. Van Leeuwen waded in there with the other volunteers, wearing a giant grin and an extra-large Project Homeless Connect Volunteer T-shirt over his button-down shirt.
This was not how he envisioned himself when he was a pre-med student at Creighton University. Back then, Van Leeuwen aimed to be a “fabulously wealthy surgeon.”
But his Creighton mentor, Gilles Monif, suggested he get a master’s degree in public health before he applied to medical schools. That’s how Van Leeuwen ended up at Tulane University, where his project on DNA testing for malaria took him to Ghana.
“It was humbling,” Van Leeuwen said. It was the first time he grasped how closely social policy problems are interwoven with poverty. He dropped his medical ambitions in favor of public policy.
“I tell people, ‘Hey, by not becoming a surgeon, I actually saved many lives.’ “
In 2009, after winning a Livingston Fellowship along with longtime friend Sue Birch, Van Leeuwen founded the Global Livingston Institute, which grew out of his work with Come Let’s Dance, a Ugandan non-government organization that helped students working in Kampala’s slums. Through the Global Livingston Institute, Van Leeuwen has supervised the building of a retreat in rural Uganda that hosts student and community leadership workshops, and trips through Uganda and Rwanda.
“Jamie is a very large flame, and he’s got courage like you can’t believe,” Birch said.
“Once, I was in Africa with him, and we were crossing the Nile on this ferry boat that was just a sheet of metal. The clouds were building, and I was thinking we shouldn’t get on this boat…. Jamie looks at me and says, ‘Birch, you keep everyone alive.’ I was thinking that we were all going to go down and the crocodiles are going to eat us. And here is Jamie, singing ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ in the rain.”