Leap of Faith

Amelia McCarthy’s Peace Corps journey became a pro bono mission

Published in 2011 Wisconsin Super Lawyers Magazine — December 2011

She didn’t know where she’d be going or what she’d be doing. But when her Peace Corps acceptance letter came, Amelia McCarthy was ready.

“It was kind of a jump of blind faith,” she says. “I got really lucky.”

McCarthy eventually found herself in Ondangwa, Namibia, for a two-year stint as a non-governmental organization adviser for with Oonte OVC (Orphans and Vulnerable Children) Organization, which was started by a local, Petrine Shiimi, to help children devastated by the community’s HIV/AIDS rate, which was 23 percent at that time. 

“What had happened as a result of that is literally there was a generation lost—a lot of parents were lost—and so there were so many children who were orphans or were otherwise vulnerable because of HIV/AIDS. There’s numerous households where it’s a 12-year-old child raising his younger brothers and sisters or it’s a grandmother-head-of-household where she’s raising 16 grandchildren and living in very, very precarious situations, not knowing where the food’s going to come [from],” says McCarthy, a partner at Milwaukee’s Gass Weber Mullins. “Oonte was an answer to help all of these needy children. Oonte provides meal programs, psycho-social support, some educational things, some HIV/AIDS prevention, and really just helps these kids by providing them with hope for their future.”

Oonte OVC houses three types of gardens, a small animal farm and a fishpond that work together to provide regular meals for more than 450 children, who help out at the center, learning where the food comes from. “A lot of people, at least overseas, wonder, ‘Well, gosh. We can’t keep sending food. How are they ever going to learn to sustain themselves?’” McCarthy says. “This is an organization that’s really dedicated to [ensuring they can] do that for themselves and for the kids that they serve. I was incredibly humbled to be part of it and I can’t say enough about the woman who runs it.” 

McCarthy helped secure Oonte OVC’s “welfare organization” status—the Namibian equivalent of America’s 501(c)(3) nonprofit status—which opened doors for the organization, giving it a national and international presence through its official opening, which the nation’s first lady attended. It also allowed the organization to purchase the land it sits on, allowing it to expand its small animal farm and fishpond and giving security to donors. 

In addition to aiding Oonte OVC, McCarthy and other attorneys worked with Namibia’s Legal Assistance Centre to draft a child protection bill that will overhaul laws that were put into place prior to Namibia’s independence from South Africa, during apartheid. “At the end of the day, of course, it’s their decision,” McCarthy says, “so really my role was helping them to identify and understand some various issues that can arise and then helping them put together, or drafting some language that might incorporate what they wanted for their law.

“[The Legal Assistance Centre had a] real commitment to trying to get input from the people on what the law should be, and then trying to execute that and also giving them the good education they needed to understand the implication of the decisions they were making,” says McCarthy. While the process of approving the law continues, McCarthy was last told that the bill had been favorably received by the cabinet committee on legislation in July 2011. The ministry has been directed to do additional consultations, but McCarthy says that it seems likely the bill will go to parliament sometime in 2012. 

“I think anytime you experience what I was blessed to experience,” she says of her time abroad, “it changes you for the good.” 

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