Inside Track: Profile: Trial lawyer returns from two-year sabbatical to help Namibian children:

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    Milwaukee trial lawyer Amelia McCarthy of Gass Weber Mullins LLC didn't know what to expect when she requested a 26-month sabbatical for an African Peace Corps mission. Now back at home, she recalls an inspirational and heartbreaking journey.

    Joe Forward

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    Amelia McCarthy takes a two-year sabbatical

    Amelia McCarthy, a trial lawyer with Gass Weber Mullins LLC in Milwaukee, took a two-year sabbatical to serve as a non-governmental organization advisor in Namibia (Africa). The organization, Oonte OVC, helps children orphaned by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

    McCarthy plays with children on their homestead

    McCarthy visits and plays with children on their homestead in Ondangwa, Namibia. Here, she is teaching them how to do a “low five” (slap hands).

    Children run to greet McCarthy

    Children run to greet McCarthy. “I didn’t realize why they were constantly grabbing at me when I first arrived,” McCarthy said. “But I learned that they just wanted human contact with an adult who pays attention to them.”

    McCarthy helped Oonte OVC make connections

    Amelia McCarthy (second from right) helped Oonte OVC make connections with the French Embassy for funding of Oonte's Glass Bottle Recycling Shelter. Here, she joins Nahas Angula, Namibia's Prime Minister, Petrine I. Shiimi, Oonte’s Founder and Executive Director, and Enos Nampala, the Chairperson of Oonte's Board of Directors, for the official opening. 

    Nov. 2, 2011 – Milwaukee trial attorney Amelia McCarthy has recently returned from a journey like no other: two years of public service in Africa.

    McCarthy, a trial lawyer at Gass Weber Mullins, completed a 26-month Peace Corps mission as a nongovernmental organization advisor to the Oonte OVC (Orphans and Vulnerable Children) Center in Ondangwa, Namibia (Africa). Oonte helps more than 400 children who’ve lost or live with parents impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic there.

    McCarthy left in February 2009 on one month’s notice. First order of business: getting her law firm partners at Gass Weber Mullins to support the two-year sabbatical.

    All of them did, including firm co-founder Ralph Weber, who invoked a famous speech given by Robert Kennedy in 1966 during a visit to Capetown, South Africa, to explain the firm’s support.

    “Kennedy believed each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against an injustice, they send out a tiny ripple of hope that joins with millions of others to change the world,” Weber said.

    “Once you adopt that insight, it of course follows that we would support someone who gave a generous and life-changing gift to the children of Namibia. Supporting Amelia's work and welcoming her back has made us a better firm.”

    McCarthy used compassion and legal training to assist an organization that is helping impoverished children and communities become self-sufficient. The real story, she says, is the organization that remains there permanently with a vision for change.

    Making contact

    Namibia, which gained independence from South Africa in 1990, is bordered by Angola to the north, South Africa to the south, and Botswana to the east. The town of Ondangwa is located in a desert region of north-central Namibia with a sparsely located population of around 10,000.

    Ondangwa is place that suffers from severe flooding and drought, which makes farming extremely difficult. McCarthy says many families live in huts made of sticks and branches, and they struggle to find food.

    In addition, the southern region of Africa has been hit hard by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The region where Ondangwa is located has an HIV/AIDS prevalence rate around 23 percent.

    As a result, entire populations of children have become orphaned or vulnerable because they’ve lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS. As of 2008, an estimated 100,000 children lost one or both parents to the virus in Namibia alone.

    Often, these children quit school to find income sources necessary to eat, McCarthy said. Orphaned children as young as 12 are caring for their siblings, or elderly grandmothers are caring for orphaned grandchildren.

    McCarthy said many of these children just long for adult contact, and a sign of hope that someone cares. While training in her first two weeks, children would bombard her.

    “I didn’t realize why they were constantly grabbing at me when I first arrived,” she said. “But I learned that they just wanted human contact with an adult who pays attention to them.”

    She started a hug line, picking them up one by one to give them individual attention. This lasted throughout her stay. “Meanwhile, someone is calling them to get in line for food, and these are kids that get maybe one meal a day, but they won’t move from the line until they get a hug. And you see the fear on their faces that they won’t get a turn. All they want is a hug.”

    “It was a wonderful experience for me personally,” McCarthy said. “Who wouldn’t love to have kids come and greet you as you arrive to work every day, asking for a hug?”

    McCarthy said her daily contact with children involved teaching them to have hope for their future, using activities like sports to teach messages and build self-esteem.

    She said her immersion into the culture and daily lives of Namibians helped McCarthy understand the problems at hand, and the solutions that were necessary to address them.

    Building self-sufficiency

    Meme Petrine Shiimi, executive director for Oonte, began to see more grandmother- and child-headed households while visiting the region’s village’s in 2004. She organized a donation drive for needy children and families for Christmas one year, and Oonte emerged.

    Now, and with McCarthy’s assistance during her two-year stay, Oonte maintains meal programs, psycho-social support programs, and educational programs for children. In addition, Oonte has developed an integrated gardening project, and maintains animal and fish farms.

    “It’s sustainable, which is important in a region with extreme drought and flooding,” McCarthy said. “For instance, water tanks store excess flood water from the fish pond, which is fertilized water for the garden. Sunflowers block the heavy winds, and seeds feed the chickens.”

    Oonte’s Children’s Choir CD

    McCarthy, a graduate of Carthage College, connected with a delegation of students and professors from Carthage who embarked on a study trip in Namibia in January 2010, while McCarthy was there.

    A Carthage professor of music returned in July 2010 with three students to record a Christmas music CD featuring the children of Oonte.

    “To see the joy on these kids’ faces when they were singing songs like ‘Silent Night, knowing the struggles they face every day, was truly an inspiration,” McCarthy said.

    The CD showcases rare musical talent, and supports children in their aspirations to rise above poverty by gaining a basic education.

    All profits from the sale of these CDs will provide food, firewood to cook food, HIV education, career training, and basic hygiene supplies for 450 children in Ondangwa.

    Order online or call (262) 551-2159.

    Once fully operational, the garden will feed more than 450 children that come to Oonte, and Oonte won’t have to look for outside assistance. In addition, Oonte is pushing to help children and community members use these sustainable gardening practices to feed themselves.

    Oonte started a “hope gardens project,” which trains members of the community on how to develop their own community gardens, and provides garden kits to get started.

    “Imagine a single mother with five children who is HIV positive and must decide on a daily basis whether to feed herself so she can take her HIV medicine, or feed her children,” McCarthy said.

    “She doesn’t feed herself, she gets sicker, and now we eventually have more child-headed households. But now we can give her the tools to create food for herself and her family. To see how that level of hope can dramatically change a community was really incredible.”

    McCarthy, who lived in an old storage shed for most of her two years, credits Meme Shiimi with the vision to change things. McCarthy’s training as a lawyer, and her knowledge of business practices in the United States, simply helped the organization support the vision, she says.

    “I was able to incorporate some business principles and legal processes to help promote the organization’s goals,” McCarthy said. “As a trained lawyer, I could help the organization create proposals and presentations that were detailed and developed.”

    One of those processes involved helping Oonte obtain Namibia’s equivalent of 501(c)(3) status to help dramatically increase donations and the organization’s visibility. It’s now recognized as a charitable nonprofit registered with the Namibian Ministry of Trade and Industry. “With the 501(c)(3) equivalent status, we were able to get grants and funding to expand the garden and the center,” McCarthy said.

    She also helped secure funding from the French Embassy to construct a building that now houses a glass bottle recycling center. Alcoholism is another problem. Now, children can collect discarded glass bottles transform them into works of art to be sold at local tourist destinations.

    “Oonte is trying to create income generating activities that will help kids stay in school, while turning negatives into positives,” said McCarthy, who was also instrumental in helping Oonte’s children record a Christmas CD through her alma mater, Carthage College. “The art will also bring more awareness to the problems that are going on there.”

    The building is also used as an educational center. “You can’t teach a child or a teenager about drinking, peer pressure, or AIDS when it’s 100 degrees out and other kids are playing nearby,” McCarthy. “That structure is important for the teaching and learning environment.”


    Law reform

    McCarthy also got the opportunity to help lawyers, judges, and Namibian lawmakers in their effort to reform Namibia’s child care and protection laws, which were enacted in the 1960s, during apartheid and pre-Namibian independence from South Africa.

    The nation’s legal assistance center gathered lawyers and judges from across southern Africa to help them overhaul and revamp the laws, obtaining input from lawyers in different countries.

    “They are considering everything from the age of majority, child’s rights to representation, foster care, child trafficking, adoption, and children in need of protection and care,” McCarthy said. “I helped them address questions they should consider in drafting a new law, while recognizing that this is their country and they don’t have many of the resources that we do.”

    Now back from her journey, McCarthy has a new perspective on things, and believes her experiences will help her be a better lawyer. “The experience of being out of the country a couple years and seeing a completely different perspective is really helpful to be able to step back and get a different perspective on the different cases I’m working on,” McCarthy said.

    Her law firm is glad she’s back.

    “Amelia is exceptionally bright and creative, and an excellent trial lawyer,” Weber said.  “We all greatly value what she brings to our firm and clients.  Her willingness to share her skills with the children and people of Namibia speaks volumes about who she is as a person.”

    By Joe Forward, Legal Writer, State Bar of Wisconsin