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Playing through the pain: Couple helps UT, children in need

Giving News

By Angela Curtis

Norma and Clay LebenNorma Leben’s goal was noble but ambitious: to open a therapeutic group home for children needing foster care. With help from relatives, she and her husband, Clay, signed a $60,000 bank loan to get started.

“Even with that money, everybody was laughing at me,” she remembers. “The state licensing representative said, ‘You need a quarter of a million dollars.’?”

So Norma got creative. She bought dishes, bedding, used furniture, and school supplies at garage sales. She signed up for USDA and nonprofit food-donation programs. She wasn’t above accepting any donation, whether for a bed frame or an old bath towel. Holey towels became face towels. Really holey towels became washcloths. She cooked egg rolls for dentists who would do free teeth cleaning for her foster children.

Clay, then a new graduate of the UT School of Social Work doctoral program, worked behind the scenes supporting his wife’s fledgling foster center while working as a planner at the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation. The Lebens looked at dozens of houses from Austin to Elgin until they stopped at one in Pflugerville. Across the street was an elementary school. “We just walked into this house and said, ‘This is a happy house,’?” Norma remembers.

And so in 1987, despite the odds, the Lebens opened Morning Glory Treatment Center for Children. Norma remembers the year well. It was the same year she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Surgeries and radiation treatments followed. “It’s as if God had said, ‘Do you really want to do this?’?” she says. “I prayed a lot, I cried a lot. It’s a personal trial you have to go through, and it’s a conversation with God: ‘If I live through this, just tell me what I’m supposed to do. Show me the path.’?”

However hard-won, success has come. Morning Glory grew to three houses side-by-side — one for a 10-child foster home, one for house parents, and one with rooms for play therapy, reading, exercise, family counseling, and parental visits.

Morning Glory Treatment Center for Children is still providing services to children and families almost 20 years later. For 10 years it provided a safe home and treatment for a total of 40 children; now Morning Glory is an outpatient counseling center where Norma works with young clients who have behavioral and discipline difficulties. She also returns to her native Hong Kong every year to teach workshops in directive group play therapy. Clay Leben owns Click Here Productions, a home-based instructional design and writing service.

Good things are happening beyond Morning Glory, too. The Lebens have chosen to give to the University in several ways. The couple has created the Norma and Clay Leben Endowment for Excellence in Play Therapy Methods in the School of Social Work. They also have included a gift to the University in their wills that will be added to the endowment after their lifetimes, and Norma has created a deferred charitable gift annuity for the same purpose. Norma and Clay maintain relationships with the school by serving on its advisory council.

Norma is a pioneer in directive play therapy, having invented many games and methods. She finds that play therapy works much better than talking at children, especially hyperactive children with attention deficit disorder (ADHD). Her tools include playing cards, puppets, empty margarine tubs, and poker chips.

“You’re involving all the child’s five senses,” she says. “You create games or activities that have a therapeutic purpose, and suddenly you don’t have to fight for a child’s attention.” But it isn’t all fun and games. ADHD children need routines with “swift and sure” and logical consequences for misbehavior.

Clay chose a different way to practice social work: policy-making and research at a state agency. “My satisfaction has come from needs assessment and program evaluation studies,” he says. “A state university like UT can provide leadership in social-policy research to guide state government funding.” Norma draws on that research. For example, statistics show that divorce rates are three times higher for parents of hyperactive children. Get help with parenting your ADHD child, she says, and “your marriage will stay put.”

“She’s the Dr. Phil of Pflugerville,” Clay laughs.

Loo Yau Chee (Norma) and Clay Leben met while graduate students in social work at the University of Chicago. They had registered to attend the same conference downtown. Clay posted a notice saying he was driving, and Norma asked for a ride. Because it was a humanistic psychology conference, there were exercises in pairing off, rubbing each other’s backs, and looking into each other’s eyes. “He asked on the way home, ‘Can I still hold your hand?’?” Norma remembers with a smile. “I said, ‘OK.’ So we held hands some more.”

Chinese etiquette demanded that she return the kindness. She invited him to a wonton-wrapping party for Chinese New Year. “I was thinking, ‘If he really likes me he’d better learn how to wrap wonton,’?” Norma recalls. They wed June 15, 1974, the day after being awarded their master’s degrees.

In 2004 the UT School of Social Work doctoral program celebrated its 30th anniversary with a symposium. Afterward, Clay was even more convinced of the school’s quality — and that he wanted to support it financially. “There was always great collegial effort to include the doctoral students as partners in the school’s teaching and research,” he says.

The Lebens couldn’t think of a better use for their money. “Luxury things are not a big necessity,” Norma says. “Scholarships will help another generation to make their impact.”

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