Mike Burnside isn’t the easiest guy to catch up with these days. With IT expertise in digital surgical records, he trains surgeons and travels the country from hospital to hospital. He’s often a long way from home — and getting further and further away from where he was a decade ago. A father of two, behind on child support, he was unable to find work and perhaps headed to time behind bars and the ugly label of “deadbeat dad.” A chance introduction to the Midlands Fatherhood Coalition helped him turn his life around.
“I would have never imagined I’d be where I am right now,” Mike says. “I’m a firm believer that the Midlands Fatherhood Coalition showed me there’s more to life. It’s a tool that opens doors.”
Mike’s happy ending didn’t happen without help. The Midlands Fatherhood Coalition is part of the South Carolina Center for Fathers and Families, one of 36 organizations around the state to receive grants from the South Carolina Bar Foundation in 2021. Over its 50-year history, the foundation has awarded more than $50 million to various law-related programs and organizations.
The foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit connected to the South Carolina Bar, the professional organization to which all Palmetto State attorneys belong. It was established to provide resources for organizations directly helping the indigent and for others working to develop innovative approaches to provide legal assistance to those in need. Ultimately its role grew to include the management and administration of funds made available because of a somewhat obscure responsibility for many attorneys.
“A lot of trust money flows through law offices, and a lot of times it doesn’t belong to one person yet,” says Chris Koon, who served as the foundation’s board president in 2019 and 2020. That money, which often comes in relatively small amounts, is put in the bank while the legal issue it’s attached to runs its course. “There are a lot of ways lawyers end up looking after money that doesn’t belong to the lawyer, and while it’s in the bank, it earns interest.”
Since the interest does not have an owner, the State Supreme Court created the Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts program to use the windfall for projects and programs addressing the administration of justice, civil legal aid, and law-related education. Because the foundation already funded law-related projects helping those in need, it was selected to administer those IOLTA funds.
“Civil legal aid is providing direct legal services — someone who’ll go to court with you or write an order for you,” says Megan Sweeney Seiner, the foundation’s executive director. “Administration of justice is more policy minded. For example, what would be recommendations for keeping individuals from going back into the criminal justice system?”
Grant recipient Serve & Connect falls under administration of justice. The Columbia-based nonprofit seeks to build trust between police and residents of communities where crime and poverty are prevalent. A foundation grant was used for its Greg’s Groceries program, which puts meal boxes in the hands of law enforcement officers who distribute them where they see a need.
“The boxes of food can be delivered in a variety of ways,” says Kassy Alia Ray, Serve & Connect’s founder and chief executive. “An officer can be on a call and come across somebody who needs it. They act on referrals. They also conduct specific community outreach.”
Every day, police encounter people in crisis. Kassy says feedback from officers indicated hunger was a frequent issue. She says Serve & Connect has worked with 33 different law enforcement agencies and distributed more than 85,000 meals.
“A Richland County sheriff’s deputy was using the boxes as part of strategic outreach in an area of the county where the residents wouldn’t even speak to him,” Kassy says. “After he began giving out the boxes, he had some residents begin to ask for him by name. That’s pretty powerful.”
Greg’s Groceries recently underwent a makeover. Serve & Connect worked with cops to examine everything from the logo on the box to the food in the box. Kassy says it wouldn’t have been possible without the foundation grant. She adds that Megan also connected her with Orangeburg City Administrator Sidney Evering, a South Carolina Bar member who joined Serve & Connect’s board.
“He’s been such an incredible board member for us,” Kassy says. “Megan and her team are amazing. We have shared goals regarding equality and access to justice. When you think about it, the relationship between the police and communities is so important to that. If you’re afraid of the police or avoid interaction with police, you’re not going to have the same access to justice.”
Chris says Serve & Connect is unique in that the foundation doesn’t see a lot of grant applicants that work with law enforcement. He likes the creativity it shows in finding ways to make connections and says it ends up positively impacting the justice system on a systemic level.
The South Carolina Center for Fathers and Families is another administration of justice grantee. The center is the umbrella for the Midlands Fatherhood Coalition and five other organizations around the state that assist dads. Its Jobs Not Jail program provides an alternative for noncustodial parents who are behind on child support.
“These men want to pay; they just don’t have the ability to pay,” says Pat Littlejohn, president of the South Carolina Center for Fathers and Families. Many are struggling to find work and may also have health or housing problems. “It costs thousands of dollars to incarcerate them, and they’re still unable to pay. What if we can take that same guy and get him a job and get him help paying child support? The issue is not about a crime, it’s an economic situation. Not only is this a justice issue for these fathers who go to court and don’t have representation when they’re poor, but it’s simply a no brainer — do we want to help this guy pay child support or do we want to lock him up for six months?”
Jobs Not Jail includes employment assistance, fatherhood classes, and legal aid. Mike discovered the Midlands Fatherhood Coalition while in family court, when he saw a friend talking to a representative of the organization.
“They help young people who are struggling,” he says. He had been constantly getting turned down for jobs before he entered the program. They found a mistake on his criminal background check and helped him get it fixed. “They actually helped me get my first job. I’ve always been interested in computers, so later on, I decided to go back to school and get an IT degree.”
Foundation board member George Cauthen says the program is a great resource. George, a partner at Nelson Mullins, echoes Pat in pointing out that jailing parents doesn’t necessarily achieve the goal of collecting child support. “In addition to keeping noncustodial parents from going to jail and helping them get current with their child support, it also helps them spend more time with their kids,” George says. “It’s a win all the way around.”
Pat says the foundation has been a consistent supporter of Jobs Not Jail. It has also assisted with producing related literature, such as a record expungement guide. “With Jobs Not Jail, for about every dollar that is invested, we get about a $5 return,” Pat says. “The Bar Foundation can be proud of that.”
The concept of “bang for the buck” is one of the things that drew Chris to the foundation. Currently senior vice president and general counsel with the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, Inc., Chris is also a past chairman of South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, a foundation grantee that provides legal services and advocacy for low-income South Carolinians.
“Grantees have to give us a lot of specific information about how much they’re applying for and how they’re going to use it,” he says. “We really vet it well so we understand how the money’s going to be used. On the back end, there’s a process to make sure the money is used for what they said it would be used for.”
IOLTA is no longer the only income source for the foundation. It receives bequeaths from estates, particularly those of longtime attorneys, as well as general donations. Occasionally a legal settlement will provide the foundation with funding and directions on how to administer it.
Settlement funds are what helped the University of South Carolina School of Law launch its Veterans Legal Clinic. Rob Wilcox, the school’s dean at the time, and Megan attended a conference that suggested law schools get involved in providing legal services to indigent veterans. “A clinic could not only provide services but measure the needs of veterans in the community and resolve the legal issues that may prevent a veteran from becoming full-time employed,” Rob says. “Megan was very positive about it. I developed a grant proposal, and we submitted it.”
Under a South Carolina Supreme Court rule, Gamecock law students provide legal services for veterans under the supervision of law school faculty. The clinic has been operating since 2018. Jackie Whitmore knows firsthand the difference personalized attention can make.
“I was in the Army National Guard for 20 years, and I was among the first wave that went to Bosnia,” he says. “I was injured in the deployment. I had a lot of issues emotionally and mentally.”
Jackie, who can’t work due to a heart condition, was dealt another blow when he tried to get assistance from the Veterans Administration and ended up in a seemingly endless cycle of claims, hearings, and denials. While discussing his case with a veterans’ outreach specialist, he was told about the clinic. Students gave his case, which consisted of hundreds of pages, a thorough look-over, and what they found was something Jackie himself didn’t remember.
“When I was trying to get medical clearance for the deployment, the doctor found a little problem and wrote a note that I shouldn’t go on the deployment,” Jackie says. Discovering that note unblocked the bureaucratic logjam that led to a change in medical status and a settlement. “I had been doing this for many years and nobody had brought that up. I was blown away by that. I’m going to write the college and let them know how much I appreciate what they did for me. A lot of veterans out here struggle and need someone sincere to help them.”
Jackie says the clinic’s director at the time, Bennett Gore, and law students Riley Adams and Brendan Green were among those who helped him.
For its part, the law school benefits from the foundation’s support. Current Dean William Hubbard says the clinic’s benefit is a two-way street in that students learn about veterans’ legal issues and can be more effective advocates once they become full-fledged attorneys. As such, the clinic spans the categories of civil legal aid and law-related education. A former president of the American Bar Association and of that organization’s foundation and endowment, William points out that it’s every lawyer’s responsibility to perform pro bono — free of charge — legal work for the needy.
“We couldn’t begin to meet the legal needs of our country if we didn’t have organizations to provide these pro bono services,” William says.
Megan says she frequently gets to hear about folks who have been helped by foundation-funded programs. She applauds the grantees’ dedication and hard work.
“While it is devastating to hear the struggles and suffering that people go through every day, it is incredibly uplifting to hear about how an individual’s life has been changed for the better because of the work of our grantees,” she says. “To know there are so many good people in the community working to ensure that everyone, regardless of income or place in society, is being treated with dignity and the respect they deserve guarantees I come to work smiling and ready to work hard for them.”