Charity Begins at Home
But local lawyers are reaching out to neighbors here and across the world
Published in 2021 Ohio Super Lawyers magazine on December 11, 2020
Charity begins at home, reads the maxim of many a needlepoint pillow—but it doesn’t have to stay there, not even during a pandemic.
Across Ohio and Kentucky, lawyers are reaching out to meet needs caused by the coronavirus, faltering economies, or forces that were in play long before. We spoke with five attorneys making a difference both locally and globally.
On the local front, when COVID-19 hit, it seemed the work done by the Reminger Foundation at Cleveland-based Reminger law firm might be put on hold. Then Stephen Walters, president of both the firm and foundation, got to thinking about the nature of his work as a medical malpractice attorney and the fact that so many in his firm work with folks in health care. How could they help front-line workers during this unprecedented crisis? It was also an issue that hit close to home: Walters’ wife is an intensive care nurse.
So Walters, who helped create the foundation in 2009, reached out to its board about mounting an effort to assist the caregivers.
Along the way, the issue hit even closer to home: In June, Walters himself, who had been in contact with someone asymptomatic, was diagnosed with COVID-19. The symptoms started out mildly, but that soon changed. “I had virtually every symptom written about,” he says. “You can feel the war being fought in your lungs that you don’t usually feel with a flu.” Fortunately, Walters did not require hospitalization and bounced back in a couple of weeks.
By summer’s end, the foundation’s contributions had totaled more than $275,000 for front-line workers across Ohio, and into Kentucky and Indiana, where the firm also has offices. The donations come in many forms, including gift cards for local restaurants, meals-to-go for before and after shifts, comfort stations, and other support services and resources.
“It would be kind of cool to go hand out lunches one on one,” Walters notes, but that, of course, doesn’t work in the time of COVID. “They won’t even let you be there. Believe me, I’ve seen and talked to these people, and they’ve made some sacrifices that are hard to believe.”
Charitable giving to combat health crises is nothing new to the foundation, which has also prioritized support for opioid-addiction recovery centers.
“These cases can seem almost unsolvable, and yet people sacrifice their time and efforts in trying to help,” says Walters. “If even one person is helped, it’s a meaningful result.”
Allison Taller Reich, who practices construction law at Cleveland-based Frantz Ward, would agree. As an undergraduate she studied architecture, and now she’s a builder herself in a different way: working to create a better community. Reich volunteers for a variety of organizations, including the Boys and Girls Clubs, Legal Aid and the Cleveland Bar—where she mentors in a program that teaches the U.S. constitution and government to students.
A veteran of service on boards, the one that’s closest to her heart is the Bridge Board for the Boys and Girls Clubs. “Just to be able to mentor and help provide opportunity to kids, it’s really important to me,” Reich says. She grew up in Cleveland, but hers didn’t feel like the Cleveland she often hears about at Boys and Girls Club meetings. One young woman, she relates, recently described growing up and hearing gunshots at night; her tone of weary acceptance stuck with Reich.
Conversations like this, Reich says, reinforce why it’s important to make kids feel like kids, offering them a chance to play foosball or basketball, a safe place to relax and read, a space with bandwidth.
For older kids at the Boys and Girls Clubs, Reich volunteers in college-readiness programs, and for younger ones she assists with homework, career exploration and internet skills. And in the midst of the pandemic, the Bridge Board has been contributing toward setting up spaces in areas where schools are closed and many homes don’t have internet connections. These centers have become places where meals can be served to hungry students, and computers made available for kids to attend online classes or do homework.
She remembers the words of a bank president, shared at a United Way luncheon: “He said something to the effect of how he could never figure out the perfect work/life balance, but he continued to enjoy the struggle.” Reich’s struggle makes life a little less of a struggle for others.
Columbus family law attorney Ronald Petroff has done the same for veterans. For years he worked with Operation Legal Help Ohio, a nonprofit that, until its closure in 2018, connected current and former members of the military with pro bono and low-cost legal services. Ohio has the sixth-largest population of veterans in the country.
“Veterans and active-duty military members frequently have family law needs, in part due to the transient nature of their lives and frequent early age of marriage,” Petroff says. “These individuals are very different people when they leave the armed services, especially when they have had to deal with issues of PTSD and combat injuries. Our firm has made it a priority to assist these people who are often overlooked by others.”
Petroff remembers one young couple from Ohio with two children; not long after the husband came back from Afghanistan, his wife left the state with their kids. Petroff tracked them to San Diego; she was served and brought the children back to Ohio. “He said he was worried he would never see his kids again, and in the end he got equal visitation,” Petroff says.
His firm has an up-close view of the pressures the pandemic puts on families. Quarantining brings powerful emotional currents to the surface, he notes. “We’re finding either couples get closer and, basically, focus on the family; or it exacerbates cracks in the window, so to speak, and magnifies them. We’re seeing a lot of the latter in our office,” says Petroff. His caseload was up by 27% last May through August.
It’s a complicated time to run a family law practice, and Petroff Law Offices has been offering discounted services to clients demonstrating a specific need and directly affected by the pandemic, such as a mother of seven whose husband left them, then lost her job due to COVID-19.
His firm is also a corporate sponsor of Wine Women & Shoes, an event that benefits the Community Shelter Board in its services for homeless mothers and children in Franklin County. He also offers reduced fees for low-income people referred by the board, about whom he is particularly concerned. “COVID-19 has seen a sharp increase in domestic-violence incidents,” Petroff notes.
Sometimes, people reach out to help others for reasons that lead them far beyond their own backyards. Sometimes they end up helping in places they never dreamed of visiting.
Richard Millisor, an employer-side employment and labor attorney at Fisher & Phillips in Cleveland, works with Sanyuka Children Ministries, a Christian organization founded by a Ugandan couple who now live in Medina, Ohio. Through Millisor’s non-denominational church in Ohio, he met Allan and Samie Kizito and was impressed by their growth plan for a home in Kampala, Uganda, which they founded in 2008 for children who have been orphaned or whose relatives are unable to care for them. Millisor helped the couple register a nonprofit organization in the U.S. to support their ministry in Uganda.
He and other local business leaders hold fundraisers for the nonprofit and he has traveled to Uganda twice, where land has been purchased for a permanent home. The ministry currently leases a compound. “We had 29 children there when we started, and it’s up to over 60 now,” he says with pride.
The younger children are sent to private day schools; older ones go to either vocational schools or college-prep boarding schools—though COVID-19 has put that on hold for now. “We believe in empowerment through education,” Millisor says. “We want our children to have the same opportunities as more privileged children.”
In 2019, the U.S. support organization brought a choir from Sanyuka to Ohio, where they performed in venues including churches and public schools. “We hope to continue to develop the link between Northeast Ohio and Kampala and want to strengthen that link,” he says.
When people ask Millisor, “Why volunteer your time in another country when you could do the same at home?” he has a simple answer: “This is what I have been asked to do.” He also points out that, dollar for dollar, a contribution to feeding and educating kids in Uganda goes about as far as anywhere on the planet.
“I’ve been blessed, in the years I’ve been fortunate to support the ministry, to see how children gain security and confidence, such that many are now serving others in the community,” says Millisor. “It’s not like we are Westerners who went to Africa to save Africans; it was really the other way around. They have given me so much.”
For Richard A. Vance, volunteer work has taken him from Pikeville, Kentucky, to the banks of the Danube.
Thirty years ago, the Louisville branch of Habitat for Humanity discovered it didn’t have clear title to land on which it planned to build a group of homes for needy families. Construction was scheduled to begin in just two weeks. The nonprofit reached out to Vance, whose practice areas at Stites & Harbison in Louisville include banking and corporate law. Thus began a rich relationship between Vance and Habitat, the international nonprofit long championed by former President Jimmy Carter.
Vance has helped Habitat acquire more than 100 lots in his hometown for some 400 units for those in need. Whether in Guatemala City, the Philippines or rural Kentucky, he says, “you see this great need. We’re fortunate to be able to do something about it. … It’s tangible, and these houses—they last for decades.”
Families who qualify for Habitat houses end up with small, interest-free mortgages covering just materials and costs such as insurance and inspections.
At one point, during a 1996 trip to build houses in Hungary, Vance and representatives from the Kentucky Habitat branch sat down with Carter at a picnic table overlooking the Danube River. By the time they stood up, the former president had promised to come to Kentucky for what became the Jimmy Carter Work Project in Appalachian Kentucky, which has built housing in Pikeville, Hyden, Berea, Morehead, Phelps and Beattyville.
“The need is persistent, and it has been over time,” says Vance. “The work is rewarding. It feels good to drive down some of the neighborhood streets and see blocks that have been transformed; rewarding to hear of families that have been able to stabilize and grow, kids who have educational opportunities that they didn’t have before.
“One thing we believe in Habitat is everybody deserves a decent place to live.”
Petroff adds a thought echoed in word and deed by each of these attorneys: “It is the duty of those of us who are fortunate
and financially secure to provide assistance to those who are not.
I subscribe to the ‘pay-it-forward’ school of thought of altruism.”
Stephen Walters: “It’s been attributed to Sir Edmund Burke, and I look at it as sort of a battle cry: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil—in this case the pandemic—is for good men to do nothing.’ It’s been one of my all-time mantras that I think and live with. For us, to do nothing is when you fail as a society.”
Allison Taller Reich: “I have always been drawn to a passage from Maya Angelou: ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ I find that it particularly resonates with me now, during COVID, when I think everyone needs a little kindness, forgiveness and connection.”
Ronald Petroff: “I subscribe to the ‘pay it forward’ school of thought. My father instilled this credo in me at a very young age; he and my mother were immigrants from the former Soviet Union and couldn’t have achieved their American dream without
the help of others in the beginning.”
Richard Millisor: “My identical twin brother, Rob Millisor, who passed away in Nepal while helping the Nepalese people following the earthquakes in 2015, lived by one of Christ’s teachings: ‘To whom much is given, much is expected.’ Like my brother, I believe it is more of a privilege than a duty for those of us who are fortunate and financially secure to provide assistance to those who are not. Rob understood a paradox of the gospel that many of us miss in our North American culture: A fuller life and joy comes from letting go of our gifts and freely using them to benefit others.”
Richard Vance: “Much of the legal work we do has only files of paper to show for it. Building a house is something that will provide shelter for families for decades. I am not well versed in deep theological questions, but I feel closer to God hammering on a rooftop for one of God’s children than I do in most churches. I call this phenomenon the theology of the hammer.”
Donald Moracz, partner-in-charge of Reminger’s Sandusky office, passed away Sept. 25, 2020, due to complications from COVID-19. Walters shared these thoughts:
“With deep and profound sadness, Reminger Co. LPA mourns the passing of our dear friend and partner, Donald J. Moracz. … I cannot imagine a man who performed more good works or made a more lasting impression. His loss brings unbearable grief to our Reminger family, the law profession and our community.”