Helping Disadvantaged Children Build a Brighter Future
By Patricia C. O’Prey – September 28, 2011
I originally met Melanie Emmons Damian through the Woman Advocate Committee a year or so ago. I was immediately impressed by the very smart and accomplished woman that she is. I learned that, in addition to being a stunning blonde, Melanie, with one other partner, founded her own law firm, Damian & Valori, LLP, which has become one of Miami’s top boutique litigation firms. Recently, however, my admiration for Melanie reached new heights upon learning of her work on behalf of foster children through an organization she founded, Educate Tomorrow.
Melanie has long been involved in children’s issues. Beginning in law school, Melanie served as a guardian ad litem for children. Then, as an associate, Melanie began to represent children in foster care as part of her pro bono commitment. At that time, Melanie learned that there was a Florida statute providing that children who were in foster care when they reached the age of 18 could get free tuition to a Florida state college as well as a monthly stipend for living expenses. But because very few foster children or parents knew of this program or how to take advantage of it, many foster children who turned 18 were moved out of the foster system and became homeless.
To help solve this problem, Melanie began work on an information campaign to inform the foster community about the program. Fortuitously, around the same time, Melanie’s sister, Virginia Emmons McNaught, was returning from service in the Peace Corps. Together, and with a collective passion for children’s education, Melanie and Virginia founded a nonprofit called Educate Tomorrow. Educate Tomorrow is committed to its mission to make education an attainable goal for the most disadvantaged in our world so that all may be afforded the possibilities that can be achieved through learning. Melanie is the chairman of the board of Educate Tomorrow and has been involved with the organization since 2002. Until recently, Virginia was Educate Tomorrow’s executive director.
Initially, Educate Tomorrow’s programs were designed to help foster children fill out the paperwork necessary to take advantage of the college tuition program. Over time, however, Educate Tomorrow has expanded its programs to include educational and life skills camps and mentoring programs. These programs are designed to motivate foster children to want to go to college and to understand its benefits as well as to encourage children to consider their options and address life’s challenges.
Recently, Melanie and Educate Tomorrow took their mission to a new level. Through her experience with Educate Tomorrow, Melanie realized that by the time the foster children reach high school, they are often already very far behind. Melanie and Educate Tomorrow desired to move from curative to preventive solutions. One day four years ago, during her drive to work, Melanie heard about the Seed School in Washington, D.C., which educates at-risk youth (including foster children) from sixth through twelfth grade. Ninety-seven percent of their graduates go on to a four-year college. Shortly thereafter, Melanie visited the Seed School with her sister. The idea of establishing a similar school in Florida made perfect sense economically. The state of Florida pays approximately $30,000 per year for each child in foster care. Educate Tomorrow argues that those funds would be better spent for certain older children to attend a boarding school with an environment carefully tailored to their needs.
To develop such a school, however, and to reallocate the state’s funding for those foster children, Educate Tomorrow needed to pass legislation approving the development of the school and reallocating the relevant funding. Educate Tomorrow introduced such a bill during the last Florida legislative session. The bill’s journey through the Florida legislature was storied. First, the bill was introduced as part of a Charter School Bill, only to be amended three weeks before the end of the session. That left the bill in jeopardy of failing, because, under the Florida Constitution, a bill must be approved within 60 days or it cannot be reintroduced for a period of one year. Moreover, being amended out of the Charter School Bill presented an additional challenge because any amendment must be germane to the bill to which it is attached. Thus, with only three weeks until the end of the legislative session, Educate Tomorrow was faced with the task of finding another bill related to children’s education. Finally, after being amended out of a second education-related bill, a bill relating to funding for children’s education was amended to include Educate Tomorrow’s provisions. To pass, the bill had to be approved by four committees in the Florida House and three in the Florida Senate. In the end, the bill made it to those committees 60 days after its introduction. Because of the late timing, the bill did not get to the last required Senate committee, once again threatening the bill’s passage. But close to 9:00 p.m. on that last day, the bill got an exception from that Committee and proceeded on to the House. By 9:00 p.m., the House was no longer taking any new bills so, again, the bill required an exception in order to be considered. Finally, the bill passed at 11:58 p.m., just in the nick of time. Melanie and Educate Tomorrow expect that their school will open in August 2012, with Melanie serving on the board of the school.
Melanie’s service has been widely recognized both within and outside the legal community with awards and honors that are too numerous to mention. Although Melanie’s practice continues to focus on business litigation, her substantial commitment to Educate Tomorrow provides an excellent example of how we can use our degrees to help the larger community, and those less fortunate, through pro bono commitments.
Patricia C. O’Prey is with Richards, Kibbe & Orbe LLP in New York City.
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