Family Values

Damian says herding kids through foster care just isn’t enough.

Published in 2007 Florida Super Lawyers — June 2007

Melanie Damian is not a family law attorney, but she knows a lot about families. “I have seven brothers and sisters,” explains the Miami business litigation lawyer. In between resolving employment and business disputes for her clients, Damian spends her time helping kids from troubled homes.

For the last decade, she has offered free representation to children in foster care and dependency cases through Guardian Ad Litem and Lawyers for Children America. The Florida Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division lauded her efforts with its Pro Bono Award in 2005.

But when Damian became close to a family with five brothers in 1999, she decided her legal work on their behalf just wasn’t enough. “Legal advocacy is great while they are children,” she says. But if you don’t show them a way to become independent, “then you’ve failed them.”

Worried about the boys’ education, she did some research and was appalled at what she found. Although foster kids leaving the system at 18 were eligible for paid college tuition and a stipend for living expenses, few were aware of it.

“No one told them they could go to college for free,” says Damian, 38. “I just saw that gap.” So she decided to fill it. In 2003, Damian and her four sisters launched a non-profit organization called Educate Tomorrow, pairing foster youth with mentors to help them enroll in college and find assistance for which they were eligible.

Damian was just opening her own firm, Damian & Valori, and used her professional connections to draw mentors to the program. Educate Tomorrow has about 100 mentors, many of them lawyers. She describes the program: “Some of it is motivational and some of it is practical. It’s saying, ‘Here’s the form,’ but also, ‘You can do it. Here’s how and here’s why.’”

As for the brothers who inspired Damian, the oldest has graduated from college and, says Damian, “Once the oldest went to school, it became a reality for the rest.” The next in line is attending vocational school and the third brother is poised to move on.

Though Damian’s career brings her much professional satisfaction, it’s working with children that brings her personal satisfaction.

“I think we help people as business lawyers, but it’s not the same as changing someone’s life,” she says. “I think that education helped me and provided me with the tools for independence. I wanted to help others do that.”

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