‘Pick up the phone and open that door’
By Jan Pudlow
The daughter of a career Army man and aerospace engineer, Karen Meyer Buesing graduated from a Cocoa Beach high school filled with engineers’ kids.
“I was utterly unfamiliar with poverty,” she said. “It simply didn’t exist in our little 8-mile-long, two-block-wide town.”
But seven years ago, the shareholder at Akerman LLP in Tampa got an up-close and personal look at poverty. She and her husband, Bob, a partner at Trenam Kemker, embarked on an “extraordinary homeless youth adventure” when they agreed to take in a 14-year-old girl who had been in and out of foster homes for many years.
“We began a journey that forever changed our lives,” 60-year-old Buesing told those gathered at the packed Florida Supreme Courtroom on January 30 to honor her as this year’s recipient of the Tobias Simon Pro Bono Service Award, the state’s highest honor to recognize extraordinary contributions in making legal services available to persons who otherwise cannot afford them.
“In the seven years since we first took her in — yes, she stayed for seven years — we have taken in five other youths who lacked a stable home or were outright homeless,” Buesing said, adding one was 15, the others were 18 or older, and they were not part of the foster care system.
“There are no dollars attached to homeless youth,” Buesing explained. “They are not in the foster care system, and therefore there are no services. Most of these kids are lacking in formal education and simple life skills. Some have made the kind of bad choices you make when no one shows you how to make the good ones.
“These kids, like most people who are poor and uneducated, have no voice. And even when . . . they try to speak, no one listens.”
Simply picking up the phone and saying four magic words — “Hello, I’m an attorney” — can “open doors that are closed to the poor, the uneducated, and the disenfranchised.” Buesing demonstrated her polite, yet pointed, style:
* “Hello, I’m an attorney, and I’m trying to help a young lady who’s trying to get enrolled in the local county health program, and she keeps getting a letter saying she’s ineligible, when I’m sure she is. Let’s talk.”
* “Hello, I’m an attorney, and I am working with a homeless youth who works part-time for minimum wage and reads at the third-grade level and just showed me a contract you had him sign where he agreed to pay $28,000 for a $7,000 car at 28 percent interest. Shall we talk?”
* “Hello, I’m an attorney, and I am trying to help a young woman whose car was struck and totaled last week. She’s left multiple messages for the adjuster who has never called her back.”
“These kids have faced immense challenges trying to cross the bridge from poverty to the middle class,” Buesing said.
“Every now and then I am frustrated by the lack of resources, and I want to play the lottery (which my son says is a tax for people who can’t do math) simply so that I can indulge the fantasy of funding a homeless youth shelter and training center.
“But Bob’s response always brings me back to reality. He always says, ‘Karen, we already won the lottery.’
“Ah, that we did! All of us did. We are so very privileged,” Buesing said.
“When my kids were growing up, I always used to tell them that it was really important that they reach for the stars. And when they grabbed hold of one, it was their obligation to reach back down and extend a hand to someone else who was not so fortunate. I am proud to say that they have both done so, and so have all of you award winners.”
Florida Bar President Eugene Pettis said he was proud that, in 2012-13, Florida lawyers contributed more than $4.8 million to legal aid and more than 1.7 million hours of pro bono legal services.
“Florida lawyers are truly committed to making a difference in their communities,” Pettis said.
While that is cause to celebrate, Buesing added, “We are few and the needs are many. Legal services organizations continue to face cuts in funding that mean fewer people can receive services. By contributing time — then, if not time, money — all of us can help those who can’t help themselves. If you have not yet rolled up your sleeves and gotten involved in pro bono services, I would encourage you to do so. Simply by being an attorney, you can open doors that are closed to others.
“So, pick up that phone and open that door. Your efforts will change not only the lives of those you help, but your own.”
Chief Justice Ricky Polston closed the hour-long ceremony by urging: “There is no greater cause than serving justice, even when it means placing yourself between the just causes of the poor and oppressed and the unjust opinions of the powerful. In so doing, you help those in need, but that is not all that you do.
“As Tobias Simon recognized, such service helps preserve many of the rights basic to our republic. This is the very essence of the rule of law, which has made this nation great.”