Spirit of Justice Award Winners 2013
Super heroes can come in all shapes and sizes these days. Some aren’t easily recognizable because they do not fly or wear a cape. Attorney Sheila Burton is a case in point. She already labors daily for the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, a non-profit legal aid organization that provides legal representation in civil matters for low-income people. But that was not enough.
While serving as a legal advocate for the poor, Sheila learned of a then 10-year-old girl whose mother had been shot and killed in the housing projects of East St. Louis when she was two years old. In the style of Sheila – a no-nonsense, get-it-done woman – she became a “big sister” to the girl, taking her on outings and mentoring her. Sheila’s friends observed the positive impact she had on the youngster and they wanted to be a part of it. That’s when she spearheaded Girls Club, a program that provides outings and opportunities for children living in poverty in East St. Louis.
That was 23 years ago and it is still going strong. The Girls Club later added a counterpart Boys Club (but you’ll have to finish this article and then read the article below about Sheila’s husband). About 15 years after launching the two Clubs, Sheila was wondering how to marry the two worlds – the world she experiences that is full of opportunity with the world of those living in poverty. “I wondered how to really make changes – life changes – to make more of an impact for these kids,” she says. The children were benefiting from their experiences with the adults in Girls Club and Boys Club, but Sheila wanted to open the door for a future with more possibilities for those she served. And that’s when she began the Family Mentoring Program, to support young families living in poverty as they struggle day in and day out.
“The program is successful because it’s based on relationships,” Sheila said. “Realizing the best way to help the children is to help their mothers, we focus on the moms and built those relationships. We talk with them and are there for them as they struggle to meet their goals – as they struggle with the hardships of poverty.”
Next came the Alternative Education Program, yet another piece of a puzzle to lift families out of poverty. Altogether, Join Hands ESL now represents all these components of caring and assisting those less fortunate, while providing a step up toward a better life for those in need.
Judge Michael Burton is the Administrative (presiding) Judge of the St. Louis County Family Court. In this position, Judge Burton has worked tirelessly to not only make decisions from the bench, but to help those who come before him leave with some hope. A year ago he said, “Having had the privilege of hearing juvenile matters over the past seven years, I am constantly reminded of the plight of poor children in our community. Absent fathers. Huge families. No food. Schools ill-equipped to address basic challenges. Drug addiction. Undiagnosed mental illnesses. Overburdened mothers who work multiple jobs, making supervision of their loved ones impossible. Nothing to wear (which is a big deal for school-age children). The list goes on.”
The judge’s answer to this dilemma was to establish a Civil Domestic Violence (DV) Court in St. Louis County in 2009 after a detailed planning process that included community advocates, court staff, volunteer attorneys and other professionals. This specialty court would deal with those crucial cases where effective solutions to domestic violence cases could be meted out and potentially help both victims as well as the perpetrator. As a result, a variety of legal and social services are now provided to victims of intimate partner violence, perpetrators, and their children. It is widely recognized as one of the most innovative civil domestic violence courts in the region.
Judge Burton also identified another problem for many of the children appearing before him: education. “It is certainly understandable how schools get exasperated with many of the youth that I see in court. Yet, in many instances, the educational approach is laughable,” he says. “Many school principals often suspend children who have missed too many days of classes. The logic seems to be missing here. When these children eventually return to school, they have missed critical lessons that the teacher use as building blocks for new lessons.” He believes that what they need most are mentors and tutors.
Oh, remember what we reported about Sheila Burton, the Judge’s wife, who grew the Girls Club into a full-fledged Join Hands ESL to better that community. Well, we need to say here that it was the additional effort of Judge Burton who added the Boys Club to the equation and regularly contributes his ideas and hard work there too.
Patti Hageman is the City of St. Louis’ City Counselor. It’s a big job, but all too often the work that needs to be done overwhelms her sizable staff of attorneys. That was the case with problem properties over the years. And, it wasn’t something she could solve easily while personnel budgets are limited during these tight times. So she got creative. The goal was to improve the quality of life in St. Louis neighborhoods, fight nuisance property crimes, and crack down on absentee landlords and others who maintain derelict property.
She didn’t want to take away from legal services organizations that were already doing important work in the community. What she needed, she dreamed, was a task force of lawyers who are not now doing pro bono, but would be willing to learn all the intricacies of legally solving problem property cases in their spare time. As she worked out the mechanics of how this could work, she met with then President of the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis (BAMSL) Heather Hays and floated the concept. “What if,” she asked, “we partner to make St. Louis neighborhoods better?”
Hageman quickly received BAMSL’s blessing. A press conference was scheduled. Paul Brown stepped forward as the Chairman of this brand new BAMSL committee, Lawyers for City Neighborhoods, and it took off. In fact, it was up and running in just weeks!
Realizing that few things run well on autopilot, Hageman once again, with the help of Paul Brown, personally participated in regular, ongoing Continuing Legal Education sessions, held at BAMSL’s Bar Center to instruct the pro bono lawyers what they will be doing, and how to do it as they join Lawyers for City Neighborhoods.
What we call this type of vision, effort, innovation and determination is leadership. Sure, she’s getting more done with less. But the folks in those neighborhoods, who are benefitting from the rehabs, the clean-ups, the yard mowing, court orders, and even some domestic violence settlements, think it is much more than that.
Paul Brown, a partner with Thompson Coburn, is the Chair of Lawyers for City Neighborhoods, a partnership between the City of St. Louis’ City Counselor’s Office and the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis (BAMSL). He stepped forward, despite the heavy workload that befits a Partner at a large law firm like Thompson Coburn, to lead this group that recruits and trains BAMSL lawyers to provide pro bono legal work to help reduce the overloaded docket of problem properties. While reducing a growing docket that has challenged the City Counselor’s Office staff for years appears to be only a civic assist, Brown recognized the humanitarian implications immediately.
Problem properties are those that may be neglected structurally causing unsafe living conditions for residents or need cosmetic construction and clean-up so they are not a neighborhood eyesore or nuisance. But problem properties also manifest themselves, often, as behavioral nuisances that require enforcement for the safety and peace of mind of neighbors.
These are all very specialized legal areas whose remedies are diverse. The City Counselor’s Office prosecutes property owners for resolution, but also engages in community dialogue and negotiations, and may even adjust the City code to achieve desired results that make City neighborhoods more livable and keep them vibrant.
Brown’s enthusiastic efforts to recruit volunteers while heading up this important committee has had a noticeable impact – both on many City neighborhoods, for City residents, and not coincidentally for the many BAMSL volunteer lawyers who have found satisfaction in helping maintain a stronger community.
Capt. Dan, as many BAMSL members who are active with the annual Motion For Kids (MFK) event at the Edward Jones Dome know him, can be an imposing figure standing six-foot four-inches tall. But he is also a very affable person who has served the BAMSL-St. Louis Rams effort for over 18 years by volunteering to recruit and manage the security at the Dome while 3,000 kids and their families participate in the all-day party. Observing him run the security each year at the MFK event to make sure everything goes smoothly and safely, it is quite clear that he is there, not just because he wants to help the event succeed, but because he genuinely enjoys being around the kids and cares about giving them a great day to remember.
Howard, as Commander of the Metropolitan St. Louis Police Department’s 1st District in the neighborhoods of Bevo Mill, Boulevard Heights, Carondelet Park, Dutchtown, Holly Hills, Mount Pleasant, Patch and portions of Marine Villa and Princeton Heights, has his work cut out for him. Yet, in that role, he has maintained a reputation of being tough on crime, but also concerned for the children who he works to protect and serve.
Just this past June, 17-year-old Kendell Robinson was walking home after buying his dad a Father’s Day present with the money he got for getting straight A’s all school year. Capt. Howard, on his lunch break, saw Kendell moments after he was robbed by three other youths. Howard quickly tracked down the suspects and arrested them. Later, Howard said, “This was a good kid. He gets straight A’s even dealing with the challenge of autism. Just the fact that these three preyed on him – these thugs – it speaks volumes to me about their character as human beings.” Howard was able to retrieve the stolen present and cash and return it to Kendell.
He has also spearheaded the “Neighborhood Ownership Model” program in his District where residents are trained by police and the circuit attorney’s office to do everything from patrolling to attending court hearings. With more than 600 volunteers, as extra eyes and ears in the neighborhoods, police say crime is down 27 percent in Howard’s District since the program began just over two years ago.
“This plan has something for everybody. I don’t care if you’re bed ridden as long as you can pick up a pen and write a statement to the judge about how a crime impacts you or a certain criminal impacts you in your neighborhood,” said Howard. His goal, he says, is to achieve 1,000 volunteers to help his force keep the streets crime free.
This former St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist, known for his keen sense of social justice, grew up in the Pruitt-Igoe housing project just north of downtown St. Louis, in the shadow of prosperity without being able to share in it easily. Of the two paths available to get him out of the project, thanks to mentors, he chose education, hard work and perseverance.
Today, working as a freelance writer, contributing to his blog for both print and broadcast outlets and collaborating with notables like Tavis Smiley, Brown looked around and saw that the “need” for a step up in his community had not diminished since he was a teenager. He recalled others who had helped him move in the right direction and felt it was time to pay it forward.
That’s when he hatched the idea for The Sweet Potato Project. In its second year, Brown recruits 20 to 25 at-risk youth and gives them summer jobs planting, tending and harvesting two plots of sweet potato plants on lots in North St. Louis. While the vines are growing and only need watering and weeding, Brown exposes the teens to additional mentors who teach the teens about entrepreneurship – so they learn that there are ways to earn money without resorting to drugs or crime – how to develop a product and market it, salesmanship, accounting, and other skills needed to successfully run a business. When the harvest is in, and they expect 400 to 500 pounds of sweet potatoes this year, the kids make cookies and other products that can be sold – not unlike Girl Scout cookie sales.
With the generous support of the North Area Community Development Corporation, The Steward Foundation, and World Wide Technology, The Sweet Potato Project provides a weekly paycheck to the participating teens for their hard work and participation, and a valuable lesson in how to get and hold a job.
As 16-year old Keon Williams put it, “All you hear on the news is black people getting killed, black people going to jail, black people getting life, and I didn’t want to be one of those people.” Brown’s initiative is why he is one of this year’s Spirit of Justice Award recipients.
Art Holliday has been coming into our homes for 34 years as a sportscaster and news anchor at KSDK-TV (Channel 5). His career after “J” school at the University of Missouri-Columbia began with his first 10 years doing sports, then as an anchor with Jennifer Blome for 22 years on their morning news show.Most recently he moved to anchor newscasts, and does live reporting on news in this town each day.
Behind the scenes he is an avid documentary film maker who has exposed many of the problems those with a mental health issue face. His documentary film, Before They Fall Off The Cliff, dealst with the fact that it isn’t a crime to have a mental illness, and it also isn’t against the law to refuse treatment. Yet, society often treats persons with mental illness as criminals. The film so accurately portrays the problem and offers guidance on how to correct our views on mental illness that it has been seen by thousands of police officers around the country as part of the Crisis Intervention Team program which trains police officers about dealing with citizens who are mentally ill.
Holliday also gives of his time as a cordial, and often humorous, master of ceremonies for non-profits at their special events and dinners each year. The Bar Association was fortunate to have him appear at our Champion of Justice Awards Luncheon where we honored William Ray Price, Jr. on the occasion of his retirement a year ago in August.
As a return emcee at many of the Mathews-Dickey Boys & Girls Club events and a St. Charles Boys Club alum, this consummate journalist noticed and speaks about why his presence at Mathews-Dickey is so important, “I understand what it means to have someone care and listen to you. It’s a place where kids know that adults care. Once they know you care, they listen. And once they listen, they’re more likely to take the right path and not the wrong path.”
As a news anchor, reporter, and producer, Holliday has also taken advantage of his position to seek out stories that bear good news and show the better side of people. He has pursued many stories that cause us to be more optimistic about our community and those who live in it by balancing the dreary and violent news that makes the headlines. He believes that people rise to higher standards if they are given a good role model, worthy goals, and great examples to follow. While that’s not news, it is something we all need to hear and see from time to time.