Stop! In the Name of Love

Between patent infringement discussions, Robert Benson had a vision

Published in 2004 Southern California Rising Stars magazine

By Bernard Edelman on August 26, 2004


On August 14, 1998, Robert Benson was sitting in the well-appointed conference room of a top law firm in Dallas, Texas, one of 20 lawyers from several firms actively engaged in the give-and-take of a strategy session on a patent infringement lawsuit, when a burst of complete clarity invaded his consciousness. “In an instant,” he says, “this idea came into my head that I would start Christian homes for orphaned and abandoned children, the most hardcore kids. It was as if all else was swept out of my mind, and I knew — I knew — that this was what I had been called to do in life, that a significant part of my life’s purpose had been revealed to me.”

Within days, he began a voyage of discovery, a journey rooted deep in his past, researching programs that sought to reach children at high risk, children abused and abandoned to the streets. Children whose early years in many ways mirrored his own.

His vision gradually, inexorably, came into sharper focus. The “family model” for the homes started to take shape. He wrote to contacts in Costa Rica, sharing his nascent idea with them. “We were just talking with a pastor from Nicaragua who had been given land in Managua for just this sort of project,” one of them told him. And Robert Benson knew he was heading in the right direction.

That December, just before he would travel to Nicaragua to scope out the site of the first home and get a read on the man who would run it, he was voted a partner in his law firm, Cooley Godward — he’s now with Hogan & Hartson — which meant that by January 1999 he had the financial reserves to seed the project. Ten months later, he incorporated what he called Arms of Love as a public charity that would serve as a vehicle for longer-term fund raising and for raising awareness of the dire straits of thousands of children across the globe.

Within months, the first of these homes had made the leap from epiphany to reality. There now are four — in Mexico, the Philippines, Senegal and Nicaragua — with a fifth, in the Amazon basin, on the drawing board. The model for these homes is basic: a couple serves as surrogate parents to a small group of eight to 12 children. They are aided by a professional and non-professional staff of cooks and maids and a bus driver, a social worker and a psychologist, a teacher and an administrator. The ratio is one full-time staff person for two to three children. The focus is on quality of care.

“The kids we target are in the most desperate circumstances,” Benson says. “They have been permanently separated from family by death, by abandonment, by physical or sexual abuse. We find them living on the street, surviving on their own, with no long-term living arrangements. We have taken in infants left in garbage cans, siblings living in public markets, 6- and 7-year-olds raped by a parent or close relative. Every circumstance is completely unique.”

The common bond of the homes is that none of the children have much hope for the future. Arms of Love provides that hope, and more. “We don’t want simply to ‘rescue’ these kids,” Benson says. “We want to give them the love and the attention and the education that will help them excel in school and in life.

“By permanently changing the course of the lives of a few children, by helping them to become self-sufficient economically, we can influence tens of thousands of lives over the next hundred years,” he says.

Because of the disparity in economies, “you can accomplish exponentially more overseas using the same resources. Four thousand dollars a month can buy a very high standard of care in Nicaragua or the Philippines, far more than we could achieve here for the same amount. Plus there is an enormous leverage in the number of lives we’re changing.”

Although Benson seeks to visit each of his Arms of Love at least once a year, he maintains almost constant touch via the Internet. “I can’t imagine how we’d operate without e-mail,” he marvels. His operation, though, is no one-man band. Members of his board of directors and volunteer teams from an array of churches visit the 

homes, devoting time and talent to changing young lives.

The joy his kids bring him is incalculable. (He and his wife, Kristen, have four young children of their own.) “There are few things in life more rewarding for me than to feel their love reflected back. Even though each of these children is different, I feel as if a part of me is in each of them.”

Maybe he’s right.

Robert Benson was born in Los Gatos, California, in August 1966. His mother eloped at 18, got pregnant almost immediately, and split from his father.

He was, he says, “severely neglected” by his mother, a flower child who drifted along in the counterculture that flourished in the 1960s. One morning when he was 2 years old she left for work and didn’t return for more than a decade.

Cared for and then adopted by his maternal grandparents, he found salvation in a good and loving home, and in a Christian education. “The foundation was established for the rest of my life,” he says.

He never did feel any resentment toward his mother. When he “met” her again, he was a teenager on the cusp of manhood. Although their common ground was music — “We both played guitar, and she taught me ‘The Prayer of St. Francis’” — he felt no emotional connection. Two years later, she drowned at Davenport Beach in Santa Cruz.

Benson had a much stronger feeling of resentment toward his father, whom he met, quite by accident, only once. A few days before his first trip to Nicaragua, he went to a cutlery store in Palo Alto, a few blocks from his office, to purchase a Swiss Army knife. He was assisted by one of the store’s sales staff, “a somewhat overweight, bearded gentleman who helped me select the knife and then showed me how to sharpen it.” At the cash register, he noticed the business card of the store manager: Norman Greenbrook.

“I knew that there was only one Norman Greenbrook in the United States, and that he was my biological father, whom I had never met, in 33 years.”

“So, who’s the manager?” he asked the cashier.

“She pointed to the man who had just helped me.”

Not knowing what to say or do, Benson left the store. “Over the next few days, I realized how much I resented him. Years of bitterness and anger began to surface. I really struggled with my feelings. At the same time, I was developing my vision for Arms of Love. And I came to feel as if God was saying to me: You want a greater measure of love for others, you need to start here, with your father.”

It took six months before Benson felt he was able to forgive his father, even to feel a modicum of love for him. He finally summoned up the courage to call the store, to ask for his father, to maybe suggest that they get together for lunch.

“Sorry, he doesn’t work here anymore,” he was told.

“Oh? Where might I find him?”

“I’m sorry,” came the reply. “He died last week.”

“Meeting my father triggered a process of healing in my own life,” Benson says. “I think God just arranged this at just the right time, because bringing me face to face with him triggered forgiveness in my heart and a healing process in my own life.” It was a necessary process, he believes, “before I could embark on a ministry of mercy to other abandoned and neglected children.”

His ministry of mercy, he knows, “might not be well received everywhere; therefore, it’s important to be a partner in a law firm that respects my work and values it.”

Benson had no burning ambition to become a lawyer. His undergraduate degree from San José State University, where he was a President’s Scholar, is in aeronautics. Halfway through college, he determined that either business school or law school would make him “marketable.” Because of his interests and his communications and analytical skills, he opted for law, got accepted at Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California, where he was a member of the Order of the Coif and graduated near the top of his class. He is now well established in his specialties: intellectual property litigation, including patent, copyright and trade secret litigation. He is also a founding member of the East Bay Community Law Center, which provides legal services to lowincome and underrepresented individuals.

Despite all of the time he devotes to Arms of Love, Benson has managed to rack up an average of 220 billable hours a month over the past year, and 2,000 hours a year over the past five years. The balance he has achieved, though, is not without cost. “It requires me to jettison a lot of other things, like a working TV and anything more than five hours of sleep a night,” he acknowledges, “and it is a huge challenge to find new ways to leverage my time.”

But the effort is worth it, he says, because “you cannot love God or experience God’s love for you without helping others.” For Benson, the practice of law is a means to a more productive end. “While I find fulfillment in my law practice,” he says, “it gives me the wherewithal to help support my life’s calling.”

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