News & Politics

Washingtonians of the Year 2007: Leah Gansler

For 36 years, The Washingtonian has honored men and women who give their time and talents to make this a better place for all of us. They find ways to enrich the lives of everyone they touch.

Photograph by Matthew Worden.

It helps to have friends in high places.

Luckily for disadvantaged children around Washington, Leah Gansler does. She launched a nonprofit, CharityWorks, in 1999 after volunteer work showed her the great need among children and families. Wanting to include friends but not stay with the same charity every year, she devised two networks: one of 125 volunteers, who would screen charities and work with those chosen, and one of 40 CEOs and others who could give and raise money and would choose the recipient groups.

The plan was an instant success: CharityWorks’s first $375,000 went to Habitat for Humanity for 20 plots of land and one house, which Gansler’s members built.

To date, the group has raised $7 million—every cent of which has gone to charity. (Late in 2007 it hired an executive director.) Gansler and company commit time and talent as well as treasure—helping the Higher Achievement Program buy a building and grow, the Maya Angelou Public Charter School open a second campus, and the Orphan Foundation put 24 kids all the way through college.

Gansler was working up to 15 hours a day for her creation when she suffered seizures and a stroke. She kept going. To a booster who protested, Gansler said, “I don’t get tired when I know I’m doing something to help someone.”

Especially someone like Kristian Smith, a DC teen who, with the help of CharityWorks and Higher Achievement, enrolled in a top private high school and says, “I was able to pick hope over chaos.” Or Shalita, molested and abandoned as a child, who was told “you’ll be nothing but a prostitute”—with a scholarship from CharityWorks, she finished college, got a job, and is planning her wedding.

Gansler “is a venture-capital investor in young charities,” says business mogul Ted Leonsis. To area kids, she may be more of an Energizer Bunny with a halo.