For attorney Kay Wolf, a 2009 book by Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof was more than a good read. It was a life-changer. After devouring Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, which Kristof wrote with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, Wolf felt empowered.
Tapping into her roots as a teacher’s daughter, she last year began a campaign within 170-attorney Ford Harrison to raise money to open an elementary school in Cambodia’s poverty-stricken Prey Ven province. They cut the ribbon for the building in December.
Wolf, a labor and employment partner in Orlando, was in Cambodia for the ceremony along with an associate and an assistant from the Atlanta-based firm to deliver school supplies for about 450 children. The firm paid for the school building, six computers, solar panels to power them, Internet access, a well providing filtered water, books, bookshelves and more.
The National Law Journal spoke with Wolf about her efforts to establish the Ford Harrison School and why she felt the need to do so. The remarks below have been edited for length.
NLJ: What was it about Kristof’s book that influenced you?
Kay Wolf: The book talks about abuses of women in Third World countries — sex trafficking, genital mutilation. It gives all the stats and then it tells a story of redemption — what you can do as an individual. I was fixated on the fact that he said, of all the things people tried to do, two things work: education and economic opportunity.
NLJ: Why Cambodia?
Wolf: Our firm had just entered the global market [by becoming a member of Transatlantic Law International, a global legal network]. I was familiar with World Assistance for Cambodia, started by Bernie Krisher [former Tokyo bureau chief at Newsweek], and I knew about the poverty there and how the schools had been destroyed during the Khmer Rouge. Eighty percent of the population lives on $1,200 a year.
NLJ: The fact that your mom was a schoolteacher influenced your decision, right?
Wolf: Yes. My mom and my sister were teachers. They taught home economics.
NLJ: Do schools even teach home economics anymore?
Wolf: I don’t think so.
NLJ: How much money did you raise to open the school? And did it all come from inside the firm?
Wolf: Yes. Overall, we raised over $86,000.
NLJ: How’d you do it?
Wolf: We did a lot of things. We had a swear jar so that every time someone swore they had to put money in. We had a hula-hoop contest. We’d have people pay 10 bucks if they wanted to wear jeans on Friday; we don’t have casual Fridays. Ninety percent of our equity partners donated one hour of billable time.
NLJ: So you started the campaign in May and opened the school in January? That’s pretty quick.
Wolf: They didn’t build it from scratch. We bought an existing building with five rooms and [the government] was able to pay off the mortgage on it.
NLJ: Does it say Ford Harrison on the building?
NLJ: What was it like to see it up and running?
Wolf: It was really cool. There were 450 little kids clapping for us. They were very gracious. We gave each child pencils, coloring books, a set of textbooks for four subjects. These kids were so happy to get school supplies and new textbooks.
NLJ: Now that you’re on the other side of the project, how does it feel?
Wolf: Great. People in the firm, the children, everybody’s just so excited about it.