Volunteer your time to help youth in our Community: My Story on the Value of Pro Bono Activities

“Lawyers have a license to practice law, a monopoly on certain services. But for that privilege and status, lawyers have an obligation to provide legal services to those without the wherewithal to pay, to respond to needs outside themselves, to help repair tears in their communities.”
–Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Justice Ginsburg’s quote reminds me of simple acts of kindness and generosity which I experienced as a young child. This generosity helped repair tears in my own family and community. I write to share my story which may inspire you to give back to youth and provide them with the skills to become healthy productive adults.

My story started in the sparsely populated north shore of Lake Erie in the fishing village of Port Stanley, Ontario Canada in 1974. At the age of nine, one of my parents violated a visitation and custody order and transported my siblings and me to this isolated town where no one was supposed to find us. I was ordered to stay out of sight. I was hungry, cold, lonely, and generally miserable. A perceptive, compassionate family living nearby invited us in one day to share a holiday meal and gifts. It was a bright moment of kindness in a very dark period and it became a pivotal life event.

Thirty years later I took my family back to Port Stanley so I could try and find the couple and thank them in person. We were able to find my neighbors who answered their door and once again invited us back in. Within a few moments, even after the passage of many years with no contact, they recalled my and my siblings’ names and provided additional information that I found healing.

I share this story to illustrate the impact of events that can be life altering when we reach out to youth in our community and try to improve their lives. In the years since that Port Stanley visit, I have searched for opportunities to “pay it forward” and volunteer to assist youth in my community.

One of these activities involved volunteering at the Contra Costa County “John A. Davis” Juvenile Hall in Martinez. This Hall, which was opened in 2005, is a 290-bed maximum security detention facility for juvenile offenders up to age 18. The Hall also has a school classroom which the Contra Costa County Office of Education operates. It is a fully accredited year-round school where residents can study to earn their GED or high school diploma while in custody. The Juvenile Hall through an auxiliary program also offers opportunities to volunteers in the community to provide “life skills” training. This gives the residents tools to assist them to transition from the juvenile justice system to successfully re-enter their communities as productive adults with the goal to disrupt the cycle of incarceration.

I volunteered at the Hall each month and participated in group discussions and problem-solving sessions to teach these residents about basic life skills. These skills included managing finances, identifying vocational paths, completing course work, arriving on time for appointments, how to interview for a prospective job, and how to listen and receive feedback. One of the lesson plans I helped develop was called “Goals and Choices.” The gist of the lesson plan was to explore these two concepts and demonstrate that the path to a goal creates choices both small and large which impacts achievement of the goal. The discussions were valuable for both the residents and me, and led to a deeper understanding of the challenges these youth face in their transition out of Juvenile Hall into adult life.

If we follow Justice Ginsburg’s wise words, each of us who are members of the bar have an obligation to give our time to better our profession and community through participation in these and other volunteer activities. The life skills volunteer teaching at the Martinez Juvenile Hall has diminished in recent years due to the development of in-house programming. But the need to help residents transition out of the Hall is still great. As a companion to life skills training, there is also a need to establish a pipeline for employment of these youth. Their abilities include computer graphics, animation, programming and anything related to computer or information technology. Please consider whether you, your firm, or any of your clients or contacts who have relevant operations can offer them the assistance to find employment. By providing these opportunities you could change the course of a young person’s life.
When you invest your time in the welfare of our youth, you can mend tears in the community.