Porter-Leath is as old as the City of Memphis.

In 1850, a young boy approached Judge J.W.A. Pettit, chairman of the Shelby County Court, on the street. An orphan with nowhere to go, he begged the well-heeled judge for help. Pettit was moved by the boy’s pleas, but he realized there was nowhere to send him. That would not do for this newly booming city of 8,000.

Pettit convened a group of women, including Mrs. Sarah Leath, a prominent activist at the Cumberland Presbyterian Church who had founded the Protestant Widows’ and Orphans’ Asylum. Leath was a wealthy widow who had two sons of her own, but was foster mother to many more. She devoted her life to the care of the destitute, and in 1854, with her Downtown location overflowing, she donated land on what is now Jackson and Manassas and started raising money for a new orphanage. Leath thought this location, which was then semi-rural, would help the orphans to get away from the corrupting influence of the city. When the small brick building was completed on June 4, 1856, it was immediately filled with seven boys and seven girls. When Leath died in 1858, an additional 20 acres was willed to the Leath Orphan Asylum. She became not only the orphanage’s namesake, but something of a guardian angel. 

During the Civil War, Jane Ward, the matron of the orphanage, fought to keep it open and afloat. But the biggest challenge was yet to come. The Yellow Fever epidemic of the 1870s devastated the city, and resulted in a flood of new charges for the orphanage. “When the Yellow Fever epidemic hit Memphis, this building was crammed with kids whose parents were deceased” says Rob Hughes, Vice President of Development at Porter-Leath. “That’s when the bigger building was built, with a gift from the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.”

The three-story building, which is now the familiar face of the organization, was completed in April, 1876. For the next twenty years, Dr. David Porter, former President of the Taxing Authority of Shelby County (effectively the mayor) became the orphanage’s trustee, as did his son James and daughter Rebecca. In 1904, in recognition of their generosity, the board added the Porter name to the marquee.

Devastating Mississippi River floods and the Great Depression brought new waves of orphans to the door. During World War II, Porter-Leath looked after children of soldiers serving overseas. But times were changing. In the 1950s, the foster care system and Social Security eliminated the need for orphanages to keep children on a permanent basis. New arrivals were temporary, put there by the courts. One of the most successful of the latter day programs at Porter-Leath is the Foster Grandparents, which give low-income seniors an opportunity to lend one-on-one support to needy children. In late 1985, the facility’s Victorian era buildings were placed in the Historical Register. Today, the buildings house administrative offices. “It’s amazing that these two buildings are still in use,” says Hughes. “They predate indoor plumbing, electricity, air conditioning.”

Mike Warr

Mike Warr is one of five children and understands the loss of a parent. “I lost my father very early. He was 54,” he says.

Warr is chairman of the Porter-Leath Early Childhood Foundation and has been crucial to the current success of the nonprofit.

Born in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and growing up in Hot Springs, his first job was as a busboy. He joined the Navy, and served on the aircraft carrier Oriskany, where “I was feeding 10,000 meals a day. Everywhere I went after the Navy, I got involved in a restaurant. I liked the customers and the employees. A good restaurant is like a family. I like getting out and walking around in the dining room, asking how the food is. It really does get in your blood. Even today, I’d sooner cater a lunch for 20 than write a grant.”

Warr came to Memphis to open Captain Bilbo’s restaurant downtown, and would go on to have a hand in a number of other Memphis eateries, such as Le Chardonnay and Bayou Bar and Grill. Then, facing burnout after decades in the business, he sold his restaurants at age 46. But retirement was not in the cards. “I’m like a beaver. If I can’t stay busy, I’ll chew my own tail off.”

Years earlier, Warr had become involved helping troubled youth. “The first kid I worked with was the little brother of a cocktail hostess at No. 1 Beale,” he recalls. “He was young, probably 12 or 13 … I went to juvenile court to literally get him out of jail. It was some BS charge. I had to talk to the staff probation officer to do that. The officer said, ‘Do you want to help this kid? I can make you an auxiliary probation officer.’ I thought that sounded cool. I went through training, got sworn in, and by the time it was over, I was the chief probation officer.”

In 1997, the venerable Porter-Leath was adrift. Its historical mission was diluted, and two different boards running the programs were plagued with infighting. The United Way, which had propped up the organization for years, was preparing to pull its support. Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Turner, who knew Warr from his volunteer work, called him and asked if he would be interested in helping turn Porter-Leath around. The call found Warr, who had started a consulting business, bored and depressed. “They needed some leadership and management,” Warr says, so he jumped at the chance, taking the job of president and CEO. “Here I come, all glib and naive, thinking this is going to be easy!” Then he saw the state of the organization. “It was a total wreck. It was on the verge of crashing.”

Warr applied his decades of management experience to the new challenge. “I just started doing what I do,” he says. “I met the people, got the financials. The financials weren’t as bad as I had feared, which was a relief, because everything else was in the toilet.”

The 1920s-era Gould Cottage, first built as a dorm for girls, was boarded up. “There was a crack den upstairs, and a prostitute working downstairs,” he says. One of the first priorities was fixing the roof on the 1873 building and pouring $120,000 worth of repairs and upgrades into the campus. The new leader proved to be an excellent and innovative fundraiser.

But Warr says the very nature of the organization had to be changed. “In a toxic culture, good leaders get buried so they don’t disrupt the toxic culture.” Warr made personnel changes, which included a crucial new hire — Anne Knox. “She knew how non-profits worked,” he says,  “the less obvious stuff we needed to be doing.”

The center still worked with at-risk youth, but there hadn’t been an actual orphan housed on campus since 1958. “The orphanage was long gone. We had what we called the ‘orphans of the living’ — kids whose parents deserted them, or they are not supervising them and they’re in jail. While all this housecleaning was going on, we were talking about mission. We had foster care, foster grandparent program, and a really broken home visitation program. I was going to get rid of that, but I’m really glad I didn’t.

“We changed our mission to early childhood development. Everything we do is evidence-based. People have tried this out, and there’s evidence to support that it actually works.”

In 1998, Porter-Leath secured a grant from the Department of Health and Human Services to begin an Early Head Start program. It was in charge of 56 kids, but “we had no place to put ’em,” says Warr.

In May, 2000, a state-of-the-art Early Head Start facility opened on the Porter-Leath campus. Soon after, county mayor Jim Rout called Warr and told him the entire Shelby County Head Start program had been decertified by the federal government. Rout strongly suggested that Porter-Leath put together a bid to take it over. “It’s got be easier, right? Going from birth to three to three to five.” says Warr. It was not. “The programs mirror one another, but Early Head Start is easier.”

Shelby County Head Start, Inc. had spent $3 million in five years and had not served a single child. What they did have was a new, almost-completed facility.  “It was a gorgeous building,” Warr says. He told Rout “I need a dollar-a-year lease, and I’ll get this up and running for you.”

Overwhelmed with new, at-risk kids to teach, Warr located a second building on American Way that had just lost a major tenant. Today, that facility served more than 200 children. “It’s full and has a waiting list,” says Warr. “We did more with $1.5 million than they had delivered with $3 million.”

Porter-Leath’s remarkable turnaround is now two decades old. First under Warr’s watch, then with current president Sean Lee, it’s implemented new programs and strengthened old ones. In May, 2014, it took over Shelby County’s Head Start programs. “We went from 900 students to 4,300 in 33 operating days,” says Hughes. “We’re up over 6,200 now.” 

Porter-Leath’s Early Childhood Academy serves 224 children.

In the first year, kindergarten readiness rates went from 30 percent to 70 percent. The goal is to have more than 90 percent of the county’s children ready for Kindergarten by age 5. Porter-Leath’s expanding Teacher Excellence Program now trains teachers and day care center operators all over the county. Their newest venture is the Early Childhood Academy, a state-of-the-art facility in South Memphis that provides what the organization calls “wraparound services” for 224 students in 16 classrooms.

To streamline operations, last year the organization consolidated its administrative team in a new Early Childhood Support Center.

But the need remains overwhelming. Every year, about 10,000 low-income children qualify for Head Start, but there are only 3,200 slots. “We’re constantly reaching out to parents. We’re in the neighborhoods where the poverty is,” says Hughes.  “We’ve always been focused on quality over quantity, but because of our quality, over time the quantity has grown.”

Warr, as Chairman of the Early Childhood Foundation, says there’s really no secret to his success. “Number one is management skills. When you’re in a restaurant, you’re managing every minute that you’re standing there. But what I really learned was, you do what you say. That’s a part of our values. If you promise someone you’re going to do something, you go do it.”

“We are totally driven by creating excellence in early childhood education,” says Warr. “I truly believe in my heart that it’s the only way we’re ever going to fix Memphis. All the other stuff they’re doing, I’m not criticizing it, but by the time you’re 16 years old and in juvenile court, or by the time you’re 8 years old and you can’t read, or by the time you’re a teen mom with one or two babies, it’s too damn late. The only way we’re going to work our way out of this is to start with those young people. This stuff is designed to stick with them. They will learn by how they are treated, and when good things happen to them. It ain’t going to happen overnight. It’s going to take a while.”