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South Orange attorney helps keep the school lights on in Haiti

The NJSBA’s Members Who Inspire program is an ongoing series that turns the spotlight on members and highlights how they are making a difference in their career and outside of the law. The program offers an opportunity for members to share their unique stories with their colleagues, inspire future legal professionals and strengthen awareness of the profession and Association. This story features Lorraine Barnett, who for decades has supported children’s schools in Haiti with charitable donations.

Nothing in Lorraine Barnett’s experience prepared her for the desolation she witnessed in Haiti.

In the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, where Barnett first visited in 1976, she passed children lining the streets in ragged clothes, some without shoes, holding their hands out for money. The run-down huts and shattered store fronts seemed worlds away for a nation a mere 600 miles off the coast of Miami.

“I was so moved by the poverty I witnessed there. Having come from Newark and known what faith and education can do for you, I couldn’t just walk away from that,” Barnett said. “I felt that what I had received, I owed it to someone else.”

Today, Barnett supports three schools in Haiti through the nonprofit Pro Bono Missions, a one-woman fundraising operation that serves hundreds of children around the island. The donations come from churches and local charitable organizations near her home in South Orange, along with friends. Barnett also donates as much as she can. The proceeds help pay for lunches, teacher salaries, supplies and whatever the schools need to remain open. For the past several decades, Barnett has sent checks every few months that vary in size – some as much as $5,000 and others under $1,000.

“Whatever I’ve raised over the years, it’s not nearly enough,” she said.

Importance of education

For years Barnett juggled nonprofit duties with serving as the managing attorney for The Hanover Insurance Group in Piscataway, and later doing legal auditing as a self-employed lawyer. Now on a break from practicing law, Barnett – a longtime NJSBA member – aims to ramp up the fundraising.

“I think all of us should be involved in something outside of ourselves. It makes you a better person. No person is an island,” she said.

Barnett grew up as one of five children on the now-renamed Rutgers Street in Newark. Her father was a pastor who died when she was 6, leaving the family destitute as they lived off subsidies. As an undergraduate at the Newark campus of Rutgers University, she never had ambitions of attending law school, but enrolled at Rutgers Law School to earn an advanced degree and improve her marketability.

“I didn’t know then that I would be going to law school, but I knew a bachelor’s degree wouldn’t be enough. Especially then, as a Black woman you had to work twice as hard to get half as much,” Barnett said. “As someone who benefitted greatly from a good education, I wanted to afford someone else that opportunity after what I saw in Haiti.”

During college she met Yanick DeVastey, a student from Haiti who had a privileged childhood as the daughter of a government official. The pair became like sisters, traveling back and forth to Haiti in the 1970s and contributing to the Haitian missionary work.

“At first, some people I knew were angry and believed I should be helping people here in the United States instead. I knew we had people here in need, but we also have social security, disability, employment and shelters. None of that exists Haiti,” Barnett said.

In 1992, DeVastey returned to her native country to establish a school in La Saline, a section of Haiti’s capital notorious for its high crime rate and poverty. The school opened with only 40 children between the ages of 4 and 5, many who enrolled with only the clothes on their backs and without shoes. For years DeVastey traveled the country handpicking students, teachers and administrators, while Barnett rallied support back in New Jersey through donations.

“These were children who would never have had the opportunity to attend school,” Barnett said. “The school gave them a chance at an education and a better life, something that was unimaginable in the neighborhoods they grew up in.”

By 2010, the school enrolled about 500 students and was stable enough to earn government approval and financial support from other Haitian institutions, Barnett said. With the school on solid footing, Barnett switched her support to three other schools in need in the Artibonite region and the town of Belle-Anse.

To augment the fundraising, Barnett wrote two books – a collection of poems and a compilation of nonfiction stories about her life – with the proceeds benefiting more students.

“If I can just encourage others to get involved in a cause outside of themselves and do something for their neighbor, that alone makes this a success,” Barnett said.

Those interested in supporting Pro Bono Missions can contact Barnett at , 973-762-1737. Donations can be sent to PO Box 647, South Orange, NJ 07079

July 31, 2023
Contact: Thomas Nobile
Director of Communications
Tel: 732-937-7527
[email protected]

Contact: NJSBA Communications Department
Tel: 732-937-7527
Email: [email protected]


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