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Liz Huntley

Building Kids’ Character through Education

April 12, 2019

“We know schools have to be a place to thrive in all ways, not just academically,”   says child advocate, litigation attorney, author and speaker Liz Huntley. “So we help schools build a culture of character. It’s not just about developing smart kids, it’s generating good kids.”

Liz provides legal and consultation services to government and non-profit agencies that serve children and families in Birmingham, Alabama. To further her ability to help, she launched The Hope Institute with her colleague Former Alabama Chief Justice Drayton Nabers in 2016.

The program, which is partnered with the Beeson School of Education at Samford University, has clearly tapped a nerve, and has already partnered with 40 schools.

“It’s the customization and the fieldwork that’s the secret sauce. Educators come to campus six times a year to flesh out their ideas, to develop the culture that works for their school. Then we hold them accountable, with an assigned facilitator who travels to their school to ensure they’re on target, and to work through the challenges.”

Liz is excited to compile data over the program’s three years, but it’s already generated great results. One school has seen a 50 percent decline in discipline referrals.

She says small changes can create huge payoffs, and points to her own experience.

Liz Huntley legal and consultation services Birmingham, Alabama

“When I was young, reading was a way to escape my reality, and a teacher introduced me to biographies. First it was Maya Angelou, then Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X,”   she says. “I realized justice was found for people through law. Lawyers push for change, they make lives better. I couldn’t do that for myself as a child, but to do that for others now, it’s redemption.”

Those books led her into a career in law, and then her work as a child advocate.

“When we talk about mentors and advocacy, we’re actually talking about love. It’s adults who care for you and look out for you, and it changes everything. It can be teacher or pastor or community leader. Through the bad times in my own childhood, those people kept me going.”

In 2015, Liz published a book about her tumultuous upbringing, which included losing her parents to suicide and incarceration, and her ability to rise above. “More Than A Bird” serves as a starting point when she speaks to organizations, churches and young people.

“I suffered at the hands of some ill-willed adults, and to dig that all up again, to see it helping people now just blows my mind,”   Liz says. “It helps people cope with their own situations, and teaches kids that personal life circumstances don’t have to dictate who they’ll be in life.”

If you’ve been the recipient of help yourself, Liz says, it’s natural to have the urge to pay it backward. But there are plenty of reasons—economic, societal, moral—to get involved.

“To me, making a difference is not about what looks good, but something that’s coming from inside you. Do some soul-searching. What’s important to you? What brings you heartache when you hear about it? That’s where your effort should go.”

Help Liz to cultivate character in schoolchildren at hopeinstitute.org

If you know a Hometown Hero who should be in the Pay It Backward spotlight, email krista@payitbackward.love