Beyond the Bar
Tom Barnard does his best work outside of the office – and the country
Published in 2005 Indiana Super Lawyers magazine
on December 1, 2005
Updated on December 1, 2016
To understand Sommer Barnard attorney Tom Barnard, one must look beyond the law. “I have this concept of a balloon,” Barnard describes. “You blow it up and you think it’s full. You think you can’t expand it any more. I used to think like that. That I had no extra time, that I was committed 100 percent to my family and my practice. But the balloon has just kept expanding, and it’s not about to break.”
But don’t think Barnard is filled with hot air. This veteran of Indiana environmental law has used everything at his disposal –– his family background, his legal mind, his heart –– to make a difference in the lives of children.
While Barnard’s sense of self-extension can be traced back through three generations of ministers, it was in the year 2000 that his own lot first expanded, with Barnard and his wife Rene (a fellow attorney) bringing a foster child into their home.
“Our goal is to take care of these babies until their mom and dad can get their lives back in order,” Barnard explains of the three foster children the family has taken in during the past four years. “And then, to re-unify these children with their families.”
In their most recent foster scenario this past summer, the Barnards prepared to take the process a step further by adopting an infant girl that had been in their stead since she was six weeks old. However, just before adoption, the girl’s biological father came across state lines to reclaim his nine-month-old daughter. It was a situation of which Barnard approved, but that he and his wife, along with their own three children, found to be gut-wrenching.
Yet the sadness the family experienced was soon tempered by the medicines of timing. One week after the loss, Rene received a phone call from her cousins, doctors Jane and Chad Stephens of High Point, N.C. The Stephenses – who had a long ranging history of providing international aid to children – informed the Barnards of a fast-approaching opportunity to help abandoned infants in need. The destination was a mission called New Life Homes. The trip was a mere three months away. The location: Nairobi, Kenya.
“The more we learned from Jane about what was happening in Kenya and at New Life Homes, the more exciting it became for us,” Barnard recalls of the opportunity that he and his wife had already been considering for years. “Here we were on the verge of adopting a little girl who had just been taken from our home – as is the nature of the foster program – and all of a sudden here’s an opportunity for us to go help other children 9,000 miles away.”
But despite his knowledge of the troubling numbers (1.8 million Kenyan orphans, many of them HIV positive), Barnard knew little of what to expect as he began the African adventure. “I had seen pictures of Africa,” he explains. “It seems to me that in the American press, what we see of Africa are two things: the Serengeti, with the beautiful country and animals. And the devastation of humanity.”
But what Barnard’s eyes met as he crossed the threshold of New Life Homes were sights that no photograph, film or voice could rightly describe.
“We go through these gates, and there’s gardens, flowers, a gazebo where children can play,” Barnard says as if he were there. “There are dozens of care workers holding all these babies. One would imagine that with [nearly 50] children at that age, there would be chaos. But instead, it’s a sense of serenity. A sense of an oasis.”
Outside the necessary borders of New Life, Kenya’s citizens live in a world where 40 percent of its countrymen are unemployed. According to some reports, 30 million sub-Saharan Africans are HIV positive and AIDS claims the lives of 6,500 people each day.
Barnard spent several days at New Life, where 90 percent of the children who test positive for HIV antibodies turn out to not have the disease – in other facilities they would be left to die due to medical ignorance. “Playing with the infants, helping to feed them. The kids are just delightful. As are the care workers – so excited to have visitors, because they urgently want to tell their stories.”
Barnard’s African story may soon add a new chapter. His family was won over by a little girl named Lucia, whom they discovered while touring one of the New Life homes in a small town. They are working through the international laws required to bring the child to the United States.
Barnard’s legal background has proven helpful not only in his personal situation, but in facilitating an adoption system for the countless others in need.
“As far as reading and interpreting the applicable laws for adoption, it is similar to our statutes,” Barnard explains. “And [my background] does help me understand what our Kenyan lawyer is telling us.
“There is an urgent need to find families for these babies,” he continues. “Most of the adoptions we think will take place in Kenya. But they’re going to need help. And they may need help with their laws and regulations, and certainly with international adoptions as well.”
And on the home front, Barnard has discovered that the drive of extending himself moves along a street running both ways. “It helps me put my legal work in perspective,” he says. “Lawyers can be so driven by our system, by the needs of a particular client or by the particular battle one is fighting. But when you see people who literally sleep on dirt or who are desperate for a bit of food, then you think about what’s really important. . . . There’s a lot going on in the world, and if we can reach out and experience it, it can make us better at what we do.
“What I’ve seen from the people in Kenya is that we all have more capacity than perhaps we think.”
And while Barnard’s capacity – his balloon – continues to fill, the weight inside only lifts him toward greater heights.