Changing the world, one child at a time
Lorraine Kerry Barnett grew up poor in the Central Ward of Newark during the dark period that eventually led to the riots. Her preacher father died when she was 6, leaving her mother to raise five daughters, and eventually two additional foster daughters, on her own.
The street on which she lived, Rutgers, is no longer there – erased by the building of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey – but was notorious. Her husband, Lee, who grew up in the projects of Newark, once told her that as a boy he and his pals were afraid to venture there. Barnett describes it as “having a bar on this end and a bar on that end and poverty and dysfunction in between.”
In a short essay she wrote of it even more vividly; her house was next to a business that was a haven for rats, and she remembers lying in bed and hearing the rodents scurrying through the walls, certain they were simply waiting for her to fall asleep so they could get her.
The overwhelming memory she carries with her, however, is of labor. From an early age, she was always scrounging for work, and money, a feeling that has never really left. She is 73 and can look back on a long and successful career, first as a legal aid attorney, then a corporate lawyer and finally an entrepreneur; she and Lee have lived for 34 years in a brick colonial in South Orange; they have raised seven children and welcomed seven grandchildren; she is the cofounder of a school in Haiti that now educates 500 of the poorest children in Port Au Prince. And still, she is working, always working, always plotting to do more, to give more.
Maybe it is because she only has ever known work. Maybe it is because, despite a life that is testament to her own talent, determination, and resilience, she remains profoundly grateful to all the others she credits for her success. Maybe it is because, despite her share of heartache – three of the seven sisters are gone, and in December her youngest child died from a post-surgical blood clot – she has a deep and abiding faith.
“We have to recognize at some point that it’s God,” she says. “He teaches the hearts of people to care for others.”
And so, while contemporaries have retired to the warmth of southern suns to bask in the glow of a life well lived, Barnett remains ensconced in her home on Eder Terrace, still plotting her return to the world of paid work. The winner of three consecutive prizes in Essex County’s writing contest for seniors and the author of a volume of self-published poetry, she is at work on a collection of personal essays she will also publish, with proceeds going to her projects in Haiti. And she continues to collect money for Haiti, while frequently traveling to the island to check on what more needs to be done. She was most recently there in February of 2020, just before the world was locked down because of Covid.
She wears her dark hair in a pixie cut, and she could easily pass for a decade younger. She is prone to laughter and scripture, giving the impression that the Bible is as dear and familiar to her as air.
The story of her life embraces all the contradictions of an American society full of possibility and also riven by class and race: she is a proud graduate of Rutgers; and was able to take advantage both of its presence in her city and its open-door policy. And yet a white English professor, initially enthusiastic about her writing talent, gave her a D after learning she, like him, wanted to get a doctorate; and her fellow graduates at the law school, one a son of a congressman, were invited to white shoe law firms after graduation, while the only job available to her was as an attorney for the poor. It was another white professor, however, who lent her the down payment for her house in South Orange. And it was her male boss who suggested she apply for the top legal job at the insurance company for which she worked, a promotion that put her in charge of all the company’s New Jersey litigation. “Me,” she says often with a mixture of laughter and amazement: “Lorraine from Rutgers Street.”
It was Thomas Cowan, the professor who lent her and her husband the money for the down payment, whom she credits for her charitable work. “I spent so much time thanking him that he soon grew weary of me,” she writes in the essay that won her a first prize in this year’s county writing contest. “I told him that what he did for us was so tremendous that we did not know how we could ever repay him. To that he responded, ‘If you really want to repay me, find someone who is in need and help them.’”
That was not an easy proposition. Barnett was making a fraction of what her classmates in private practice were. “We were always struggling, always under the gun financially,” she recalls. “It took us a long time. We came from Newark. We borrowed money to go to school. We had children, we had medical expenses, rent to pay. We had to have two cars.... We always had this burden. We didn’t have extra money, but the Lord blessed us, and then we began helping others too.”
She eventually found her calling in Haiti, a place, she says, where “as desperate as they are, you don’t need a lot of money to make a big difference.” “I found the satisfaction of giving,” she says at another point, “to someone who has nothing to give you in return but their gratitude.” She started small, with a sister, and together they raised funds for a woman running a mission there.
That led to a much bigger idea. Her best friend at Rutgers Law School was Yanick de Vastey, a wealthy Haitian who had lived much of her life abroad. Together with de Vastey and some of her sisters, all of whom had successful careers, Barnett became determined to set up a school in one of Port Au Prince’s poorest neighborhoods, La Saline, a slum that became notorious in 2018 when armed gangs murdered at least 71 of its citizens, including women and children, in what the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic called a “state-sanctioned massacre.”
Barnett had long been aware of its horrors. When de Vastey visited 30 years ago to hand pick the 40 children who would start at the school, she found children without shoes or clothes, parents who had to give their children to other families to raise (and work) because they could not afford to feed them. Against all odds, the women not only kept the school going for decades but grew it. Today it educates 500. “It’s worth gold,” says Barnett, “to see the faces of the children who would not be able to go to school except for what we did there.”
Several years ago, the women, who had raised and given money to support it all those years, passed it off to the New Jersey chapter of Haitian American doctors, known as AMHE. “The doctors got more money than me,” says Barnett with a laugh, explaining that, especially after the devastating earthquake of 2010, it had become impossible for the two women to raise and give the money necessary to keep the school afloat.
That does not mean that Barnett is done. She now supports three other schools and six families through her charitable foundation, Pro Bono Missions. “I may not be able to do much,” she explains, “but if everybody could just do a little bit, it would make a huge difference in the lives of a few people, and we trust that if you’re changing a few lives, they will change a few lives.”
She knows that for sure. It happened to her, Lorraine from Rutgers Street.
Tia Swanson was awed by the generosity, faith and humility of Lorraine Barnett. Gifts to her foundation can be sent to Pro Bono Missions, P.O. Box 647, South
Orange, NJ 07079.