Making friends has always come easily to Heather Todd. She attributes this to frequent family moves when she was growing up, enabling her to meet and get to know new people all the time. “I was born in Miami and moved to Sarasota when I was five-years old. I went to four different local elementary schools, Sarasota Middle School, Sarasota High School and Riverview High School,” she says. “Looking back, I think that’s what set me up for success with making friends easily.” Based on interviews with current friends and colleagues, however, it seems to be Heather’s sense of compassion, deep community ties and loyal personality that makes her the person that everyone wants to know. As it would for most teens, moving often did present its challenges for Heather. Having her parents divorce during her freshman year of high school was hard, she tells us. “Extracurricular activities, my brothers and my friends helped me through what I thought would be the most difficult time in my life. I threw myself into softball and got involved in clubs at school, even if the school was new to me. I knew the only way of surviving going from a Sailor to a Ram would be to make friends and be out of my comfort zone,” she recalls. “This experience and the challenges that I faced as an adolescent would lead me to a career choice and would ignite a passion that I had no idea existed inside me.”

As the Executive Director of Teen Court of Sarasota for the past seven years, Heather has definitely ignited her passion. With her help and leadership, thousands of youth have received a second chance. And this all started through an internship arranged for her through a mutual friend during her undergraduate social work program at University of South Florida in Tampa.

“I was 22 at the time of my internship and my memories and feelings from my high school years were still fresh,” she says. ”I knew I wanted to make a difference with those students. I wanted them to feel supported and empowered through this second chance. I shared at the beginning of every interview that whatever the child did to get to our interview didn’t define them. I wanted them to know that we all make poor choices and that it was okay, we were going to get through this together. The students were all different — no two offenses were the same. With every student that we served I felt more inspired.”

For 28 years, Teen Court has served as a juvenile court alternative for at-risk youth. A nonprofit organization, Teen Court provides a range of educational and counseling services for juvenile clients, and is a source of law education for offenders and volunteers alike.

Heather went on to get a masters degree in social work, also at USF. She had thought about leaving Teen Court to go onto bigger and better things, but the truth was, “this was as big as it gets,” she shares. “To inspire and empower our most vulnerable population…I was already in my dream job.” Heather continued on as a case manager for 16 years. In those 16 years, Teen Court served more than 8,500 clients and over 3,200 volunteers.

At Teen Court, Heather has a successful track record in collaborating with the legal and law enforcement leaders throughout the county for the benefit of Sarasota’s teens. Sarasota Sheriff Kurt Hoffman considers her a friend and great community partner. Teen Court Chief Operating Officer, Lori Moran echoes those sentiments. “Heather is a caring person and an inspiration to the youth that walk through our door,” she says. “As a leader, she values her staff and volunteers and is a compassionate mentor to the young people and families we support in Sarasota County. Teen Court is lucky to have Heather at the helm.”

Pat Robinson, Deputy City Manager of the City of Sarasota, and former Deputy Chief of Police at the Sarasota Police Department has been a friend and colleague of Heather’s for many years. “Heather has always cared deeply about our community, so it wasn’t surprising to me that she took a position after college here in her hometown that supports the building blocks of the community at large, our youth and their families. She has been a staunch advocate for Sarasota, and our kids, for over two decades. Heather is tireless in her efforts to help kids thrive in difficult circumstances. She gives up her evenings, her weekends, and sometimes brings her two sons and husband to events when she can’t fill a gap in programming to ensure her clients needs are met. She is the epitome of selfless service to the families, and kids, in Sarasota. Simply, she always finds a way to help, always, and she does it with the most positive attitude you could ever hope for.”

What inspires Heather to do the work she does? “Teen Court gives young people that have gotten off track, a second chance, an opportunity to right their wrong,” she says. “The process allows youth to share their story in a court setting and to have a jury of their peers decide their consequences. A true ‘Justice for Youth by Youth’ process. On the case management side, we empower students to see their true potential. We highlight what they are doing right, and do not dwell on what they are doing wrong. We hold them responsible for their choices by making our expectations clear and having them be part of that process. If we respect the process and respect our clients they will be watching and listening. They will continue to volunteer long after they have completed our program. This is evident by our 92% success rate. Our recidivism rate is only 6-8%,” she adds.

Heather and her husband, a police officer and cancer survivor, have two sons, the oldest named after one of her favorite Teen Court volunteers. “The students and the families that I have worked with over the years have had such a positive impact on me and the experiences have helped me become the mother I am today,” she says. “I have seen firsthand the importance of building confidence, healthy mental wellness, and powerful positive communication.”

When the executive director role at Teen Court first became available in 2015, Heather wasn’t sure she even wanted it. With encouragement from women that she respected and admired and her three favorite boys cheering her on, she decided to put her name in the hat. “Completely out of my element in a world of grant writing, reporting and lots and lots of meetings, I found my way,” she says. “If you are passionate about something and never forget what you are working hard for, you can learn anything.” She kept her eyes on the prize of preventing hundreds of students from having a criminal record that would close doors to their dreams and goals. She continued the tradition of inspiring, encouraging and educating young people to be the best that they can be. She hired a staff that believed in the mission and made Teen Court even better than it was before they worked there.

“The accomplishments of Teen Court volunteers and clients make my heart burst with pride,” says Heather. “We have doctors, military personnel, attorneys, mechanics, teachers, police officers, entrepreneurs and even a judge that all participated in Teen Court as children. Being a stop on their road map validates that the experience they had with us allowed for them to achieve their dreams. But what makes me cry happy tears are the alumni that are now community leaders and mentors that make a difference and pay it forward every day.” She is also very proud of the Teen Court scholarship program. Every year Teen Court gives approximately 10-15 scholarships per year to graduating seniors. “Our scholarships aren’t based on their past only,” she tells us. “We don’t care what other extracurricular activities they were involved in, or their GPA or SAT score. We care about the empathy and compassion they showed to their peers when their peers needed them most. We care about how they made their community a better place after they made a poor decision.” SRQ Heather Todd was honored as one of SRQ Magazine’s Good Heroes this past December.