Morgan Lewis lawyers contribute to the communities in which we practice through active volunteerism and service on boards of directors. Our goal is to participate in, support, and improve the communities where we live and work. Over the past two years, the firm has focused much of its efforts on helping children thrive. But for some, the commitment goes even deeper and becomes a part of who they are. Here, some of our people share their stories of what giving back has given them.
The Jessie Rees Foundation (JRF) supports and encourages children facing pediatric cancer to NEGU, or Never Ever Give Up. Since 2012, JRF has delivered more than 200,000 Joy Jars filled with toys and activities to children in all 50 states and more than 30 countries around the world, and it’s on track to fill another 50,000 this year. Using the Joy Jar as an introduction, JRF commits to supporting each of our families for one year of joy, which includes additional care packages for each member of the family, adventure getaways, direct financial support, and facilitating additional assistance and access to important resources. The firm has supported JRF by collecting toys for the Joy Jars, volunteering at the Irvine, California, headquarters, and teaming up with firm clients for various events around the nation. Litigation partner Collie James serves as chairman of the board and shares what that means to him.
“On January 16, 2011, in a small room at CHOC hospital, I learned that my 5-year-old daughter Maddie had a rare form of brain cancer called DIPG that was unstoppable and incurable. The pediatric neurosurgeon’s only advice to us was stark: go make some memories.
She died 58 days later.
Through that terrible time, two miracles occurred that have changed my life. Maddie loved the ocean, and her mother and I formed the Maddie James Foundation to help support the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, California, a place she loved. Today, through the support and sacrifice of people around the world, the Maddie James Seaside Learning Center welcomes over 250,000 people annually and forms the core of the Ocean Institute’s children’s educational program.
The second miracle was the opportunity to counsel other parents who faced the same news I received in that hospital office. One of those fathers, Erik Rees, had just learned that his 12-year-old daughter Jessie also had DIPG when we were connected through our hospice care team. Jessie was a remarkable girl and after realizing that, unlike her, many kids had to stay in the hospital for treatment, she asked a simple question: ‘How can we help them?’ She then went in to her room and made care packages filled with toys and encouraging notes that she called Joy Jars. She handed them out on the pediatric oncology ward after her own grueling radiation treatments, bringing a bright ray of happiness into the lives of kids and families facing a very dark and uncertain future.
Although Jessie joined Maddie in heaven in January 2012, the legacy she created lives on in the Jessie Rees Foundation. In 2015, Erik asked me to join the Board of Directors, and I have proudly served as its chairman for the last two years.
I have often been asked how I survived losing my daughter and, in many ways, it is because of the goodness of friends and strangers alike. And one of the great joys of my time with JRF has been the ways in which I have seen that goodness come out in my colleagues at Morgan Lewis and in our clients.”
Read Ahead’s reading-based mentoring develops in students the social-emotional skills essential for academic and lifelong success. Since 1991, Read Ahead (formerly Everybody Wins! NY) has matched volunteer mentors from premier corporate and community partners with New York City students at nearby public elementary schools for one-on-one reading-based mentoring. Through the over 17,000 lunchtime reading sessions held annually, our 1,000+ students develop confidence in their abilities, motivation to learn, and the skills needed to thrive in school and beyond. Our New York office has supplied mentors to elementary school children, including legal secretary Glenda Campozano.
“I have always considered the importance of giving back to the community, especially to children. I came to the United States four days shy of my seventh birthday and began second grade shortly thereafter. There were no bilingual classes at that time and hardly any Spanish-speaking classmates or teachers. I was very shy and my best friend in class was a mute girl. We communicated in our special way while I was learning English and that experience motivated me to help others. By third grade I was the top student in my class.
Morgan Lewis gave us the opportunity to volunteer through the Read Ahead program and this story motivated me to help kids reading at PS 116. I just finished my third year participating in the program there. I have been mentoring a wonderful fourth grader, Sofia, for the past two years and I look forward to seeing her every Tuesday. We work on her goals every week and her reading has progressed considerably. This is a rewarding program and a win-win situation for both of us as I feel it is a small way to give back.”
For the second year, our Moscow office held a master class for students of Vverkh (Step Up) on how to prepare slides for presentations and speak confidently in public. Vverkh is a charity engaged in educational activities for graduates and residents of orphanages and psychoneurological institutions. The class helps Vverkh students prepare for their annual conference. Vverkh hosted a competition of more than 80 contenders to select 20 students to attend this year's class. The firm was honored by Diema's Dream, a charitable foundation for children with disabilities, with its the Diema's Dream Heart Award for the work we do for this foundation, as well as our firm's commitment to pro bono legal services in Russia. Vasilisa Strizh, managing partner of the firm’s Moscow office, helps coordinate these events for the office.
“The best part is that each such event is a learning experience for everyone, for students, their teachers and tutors, and us. These events remind us how wonderfully diverse this world and people are and help us learn how to accept differences. Each year we see a growing number of volunteers, both lawyers and non-legal staff, who would like to contribute. And, of course, it is always a very positive experience and when these teenagers leave the office, you feel the great hope for a better future for these children and for ourselves. At the end of the day, this is what makes our work so gratifying.”
With the guidance of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), associate Michael Carlton helped an eight-year-old girl from El Salvador obtain asylum in the United States. Gangs targeted the girl's family in El Salvador, forcing her to flee her home country. Upon arrival in the United States, she was classified as an unaccompanied minor and held in a facility operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement until the government released her to family members in the Washington, DC, area. Due to the girl's very young age, we pieced together her story by interviewing and collecting statements from half-a-dozen of her family members. Although the girl's youth shielded her from the many horrors that befell her family members in El Salvador, the girl, who was just seven years old when she made the trip from El Salvador to America, still provided key corroborating information via affidavit in advance of submitting her asylum application, as well as through her testimony during the in-person interview conducted at the Arlington Asylum Office.
“I’m an investment management lawyer. My work is regulatory in nature; I read statutes and rules and work with my clients, but I don’t go into court. So when I went to a presentation by KIND searching for pro bono lawyers to help with immigration cases, I wasn’t really interested in asylum matters because I didn’t think I had the skill set. But hearing these stories compelled me to help with the aid of our pro bono advocates. I was introduced to a little girl who was as sweet as can be and had been in the United States for almost 10 months, so time was ticking to submit her asylum application before the one-year statutory deadline.
The first thing I had to do was go into court and speak before a judge — my third time in court in my seven-year legal career. The judge was a kind man who specialized in these cases. He understood I was a pro bono lawyer before I spoke and put me at ease. In the span of just a few months, with the assistance of a translator, we had turned in the application, sat down for an asylum interview, and were granted asylum. At times, my client may have been confused by the complexity of the immigration process, but she was all smiles when the asylum officer announced that she would be able to continue living in the United States with her new family—her aunt, her uncle, and two cousins she treated like sisters.
It was an incredibly rewarding process. I’m used to drafting disclosure that goes into shareholder documents, so it was nice to have a real tangible impact on a person’s life. I would encourage others to understand that, even if they don’t have any background in these types of matters, they can make a significant impact.”
In partnership with two clients, we hosted an “empowerment conference” for nearly 200 girls, most of them minorities, at public high schools in East London to encourage girls aged 13–15 to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The event included a screening of “Hidden Figures,” the inspiring true story of three black women mathematicians who worked at NASA and played a crucial role in the United States winning the space race. Associate Charlene Brown, who founded Honest Voice, an online platform launching in 2018 to support youth from all socioeconomic backgrounds to realize their full potential, entertained questions from the students on future education and career choices.
“All too often I speak to young people who lack the support, direction, and the self-belief that they can achieve. Even the young people I have met who have the confidence or have some form of support or direction, still need support to develop the practical skills they need in life to achieve and to protect their mental wellbeing. This is why I founded Honest Voice and I undertake outreach work whenever I can. It is imperative that young people are provided with the tools to shape their future and most importantly, have the belief that they can achieve. The workplace should reflect the society we live at all levels. By helping young people, it’s my way of contributing to society and ensuring that there is equality for all in the future.”