Strength From Loss
Tragedy inspired nonprofit law attorney Karen Leaffer to provide community service and disaster relief
Published in 2015 Colorado Super Lawyers Magazine on March 13, 2015
Tragedy set Karen Leaffer on her current path.
In 1998, Leaffer gave birth to twins, but one of them passed away shortly afterward. “You’re faced with ‘What do I do? What’s next?’” says Leaffer. “I decided that my job is to help, and have a positive impact on the world.”
So when the Columbine shooting shook the world the next year, Leaffer worked on creating a fund for the school’s victims and their families. It was just the beginning of her disaster relief efforts.
Leaffer, whose day-to-day work at Leaffer Law is primarily with charities, foundations, trade associations and nonprofits of all types, was thus ready in 2013 when floods in 17 Colorado counties left 10 dead, 1,500 homes destroyed, and 19,000 homes and businesses damaged.
“People stepped up with food and clothing for families,” she says. “[But] I knew there were the immediate issues to deal with, and then in the weeks that follow there are issues you can’t even comprehend.
“So with the floods, it was, ‘We’re at a point where everybody’s leaving town and our businesses are going to close. Is there any way to get some aid to the businesses in town?’ … There’s a belief you can’t give charity to business, and while there’s a certain amount of truth to that, when you have systemic change because of a natural disaster you have to do things a little differently.”
Leaffer reached out to a team of individuals—including attorneys who, in the wake of 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, worked closely with the IRS and the American Bar Association to help businesses with philanthropic dollars. “We developed a model, or template, that would allow what we call ‘recoverable grants,’ to small businesses that weren’t going to be able to get it from the FDA or private philanthropic sources. We got about a million dollars out there to the small businesses in an environment where people said it couldn’t be done,” she says.
Along with money, Leaffer knows how much kindness and empathy helps.
“When my baby died, many people reached out to me, and some were people who had lost a child,” she says. “The things they told me were what got me through. Now when I learn that someone has lost a child, I try to reach out to them and help them.
“One of the important things to remember [when you lose a child] is that you don’t love them any less because you move on. Sometimes you feel like the only way to demonstrate how much you love them is by being miserable, and that it’s almost somehow dishonoring their memory by being happy and living again. But I want to tell them that it will get better. It’s going to be hard, but it does get better. You cry a little less every week.”