A 2006 Decorah High School graduate is hoping to take advantage of a unique opportunity abroad that could help her achieve her career goals.
Leah Leeps recently learned she has been selected for a six-month job experience program at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands. Leeps has a bachelor's and master's degree in criminal justice from the University of Cincinnati and wants to work in either national or international law enforcement.
When she started college, Leeps was pre-law, but after taking a required criminal justice class, she excelled and decided that was her field. It's a decision that couldn't have made her father happier.
Leeps is the daughter of Warren and Vali Leeps of Decorah. Warren spent more than 30 years with the Decorah Police Department before retiring in 2011 as a captain.
"Growing up and just watching him with the Decorah Police Department, I saw him doing a lot of good. I realized that's the route I wanted to go. Ever since I told him what I wanted to do, he absolutely loved it," Leeps said of her father.
"He's one of my biggest supporters. He's been part of my inspiration."
Leeps said her mother is also encouraging her to keep striving and not settle for "the easiest thing."
Leeps had the chance to see what her father did first hand during her first internship - one with the Decorah Police Department - from March to May of 2009.
"Growing up, I thought I knew what he (Warren) did. Spending time with the department opened my eyes. I learned so much of what officers have to deal with. It was a great learning experience," she said.
After completing her master's degree in 2012, she completed a six-month internship with Immigration Customs and Enforcement in Washington D.C., and last year she spent time in Salt Lake City with the state of Utah's medical examiner doing death investigations.
Leeps said she was "thrilled" with the time she spent working for ICE.
"I loved the international aspect of it," she said.
"I want to do investigations and I want to help people," Leeps said.
Leeps has been in contact with Kim Blokhuis, who attended Decorah High School during the 2002-2003 school year as an exchange student from the Netherlands. The two played on the Decorah tennis team and have remained in contact through the years. Blokhuis has been an "invaluable resource" as Leeps plans for her internship.
As she's looked for jobs in her field, Leeps has quickly realized what she needs to succeed - a military background or extensive internship experience. She tried to get into the military in 2009, but wasn't accepted because she's had too many surgeries to deal with temporomandibular joint and muscle (TMJ) (jaw) disorder.
Leeps then went on an "application binge" for jobs and internships that would give her the background she needs to advance. That's how she found her current position working part time for a government contractor in support of military training, and how she was selected for the ICC internship, something she hadn't expected since the ICC program website said only a limited number of applicants from non-ICC member countries would be selected.
The position is unpaid, and Leeps estimates it will cost her $10,000 for airfare, rent, public transportation and living expenses for six months. Typically ICC interns are eligible for funding from a European Union philanthropic group, but since she is American, Leeps said she doesn't qualify for such funding. So she recently set up her own crowd-sourced fundraising website: http://www.gofundme.com/6o65fc. A "Support Leah Leeps" fundraising account has also been established at Viking State Bank in Decorah.
Leeps said she's never been involved in fundraising before.
"I feel silly doing this, but this means so much to me, I will come up with a way to do it. I'm already grateful for where I was raised - Decorah has great people. I hope they're willing to support one of their own whether they wish me good luck or financially contribute. It means more than anything," Leeps said.