After 42 years at work, Youth Homes Executive Director Geoff Birnbaum hasn’t made any plans for his first days of retirement.
“People keep asking me what I’m going to do,” he said. “I’m going to wake up on Jan. 1 and get something done.”
Birnbaum, who’s pushing 70 but doesn’t look it — “it helps to be bald,” he laughed — felt it was time to step down after decades at a job he didn’t plan for.
The opportunity came about in the mid-1970s after Birnbaum had worked for the state. He was looking to get into nonprofit social work and a Missoula foster care nonprofit was starting up with grant funding. They needed a director.
“I remind myself often, when things seem to be going well, that I was hired on a tie vote,” Birnbaum smiled. “I remember when I got it, thinking, ‘This will be fun for awhile.’ ”
But he’s helped grow the nonprofit from a single shelter and a somewhat disorganized foster program into an expansive youth organization that includes foster and adoption programs, family support, wilderness therapy and nine group homes across western Montana.
And Birnbaum was never static.
“The fact is, I haven’t had the same job for 42 years,” he said. “It’s been an evolution.”
In his first months on the job, he was involved with every kid who came to the shelter, eventually moving higher and higher up into a supervisory role.
But that came with its own rewards, as Birnbaum got to mentor new employees and teach them the ways of service to underserved kids.
“The training of young people to do work for us, to influence those young people became as much of a passion,” Birnbaum said.
He would tell employees, “This is not your life. This is their life.”
Beth Cogswell, the associate executive director who’s taking over for Birnbaum, said he’s made a difference in hundreds of employees' lives through his leadership and open-door policy at the office.
“People have invested in this organization over the years really because of him,” Cogswell said. “He’s an incredibly personable person. He’s really accessible.”
Birnbaum’s influence reached further into the community through his decades of youth soccer coaching as well, something he said he hoped to continue in some capacity after retirement.
His friendliness and leadership around Missoula benefited the nonprofit in myriad ways, Cogswell said. Because people knew Birnbaum and trusted him, the organization’s reputation grew.
“Geoff was really visionary in growing the organization when the opportunity arose in order to serve as many kids as possible,” Cogswell said. “He’s a person who really cares about kids and that has been his first priority.”
And for Birnbaum, it all comes back to kids. He has two of his own and several foster children. He never tires of hanging out with the young people, who impress him generation after generation.
“Teenagers are the great questioners. They question everything,” Birnbaum said. “They don’t have politics, they just have opinions.”
Birnbaum is somewhat conflicted about leaving: State budget cuts have had a severe impact on Youth Homes and he’s had people tell him that it’s both a good time to leave and a bad one.
But he’s optimistic Youth Homes will get through lean times as it has many times before.
“These are tough times. And the community has to step up,” he said. “The need hasn’t changed.”
But while some retirees worry about who can take their place, Birnbaum holds a different view.
“I’m just like, ‘Get out of the way.’”