Oklahoma Bar Journal

Bar Foundation News | Oklahoma Bar Foundation Supports Justice, Education and Hope

By Rachael Van Horn

Adam had no future. If you ask him, he’ll tell you.

We can’t discuss Adam’s real name because his participation in the juvenile system of justice is protected.

The Woodward News had a chance to read a letter from Adam, who shared details about his experience when he was sent to the Woodward Detention Center, which is managed by Western Plains Youth & Family Services (WPYFS). He writes pages about his exposure to the first mental health treatment and counseling he ever had at the center and how that not only changed his future but saved his life.

“I was 17, running around with gangs, drinking alcohol and smoking every day and doing all the crimes you can think of. Then boom! I’m in Woodward Detention Center,” the youth’s letter stated. “This place has helped with everything. I’m about to graduate. Mr. Mario [mental health professional Mario Perez] taught me so much about mental health, and he taught me how to let stuff go. Overall, this place helped my mental and physical health. Without being in here, I might be dead.”

“In Woodward, there could be as many as 10 juveniles being housed at the center by court order for a wide range of legal offenses,” said WPYFS Executive Director Kevin Evans. “Were it not for the Oklahoma Bar Foundation, there would be zero access to mental health counseling and support for those youths.”

An interesting fact: There are about 13,713 attorneys who live or practice in the state of Oklahoma. However, there are 18,795 attorneys (both in and out of state) who are members and contributors of a lesser-known but active sister organization to the OBA, known as the Oklahoma Bar Foundation.

“The OBF was founded in 1946 by several members of the OBA. Through the years, it has become an organization committed to helping meet the legal needs of Oklahomans,” said Oklahoma Bar Foundation Executive Director Renée DeMoss.

Lawyers wanted a way to give back to and bolster their communities. This human-focused foundation is the third oldest state bar foundation in the United States.

“In 2024, it will award $1.4 million in grants to 45 nonprofits serving children, families and immigrants in the state. Since 1946, the OBF has given out more than $21 million in grants to youth and family-focused charities, under-financed courtrooms in the state and scholarships for those who want to serve the legal profession at all levels,” she said.

“I know what [the OBF has] done for us,” Mr. Evans said emphatically. “They have provided vital funding for mental health services for children in juvenile detention [in Woodward]. They have been awesome to us.”

Locally, the foundation donates $15,000 per year to Western Plains Youth & Family Services, specifically to be spent on mental health counseling for juveniles who are in the detention center through court orders.

“Along with providing critical support to organizations that represent and protect the rights and futures of the most vulnerable in the state, the organization is working hard to plug holes in an overloaded Oklahoma legal system, which now has more needs than resources,” said Oklahoma Bar Foundation board member and Woodward attorney Jim Dowell.

Indeed, the biggest beneficiaries of the foundation’s giving have been Oklahoma’s next generation, according to the foundation’s most recent financial report. Last year, 58,685 Oklahomans were helped by the Oklahoma Bar Foundation through $743,624.50 in donations, the report noted. That includes adult populations who are often not able to access legal counsel. To access the report, visit www.okbarfoundation.org and click on the 2023 Impact Report button.

“However, that is not all the foundation has accomplished. Through its grants and awards programs, it has provided funding for court improvements, including tech grants for needed equipment. That includes items such as recording devices and video equipment in the courtrooms, software and more,” Mr. Dowell said. “A large portion of those grants are focused in rural area courtrooms,” he added.

In total, in 2023, the OBF granted $148,366.04 to counties specifically for support equipment, software and audio and visual equipment. “Over the years, we have helped all 77 counties with courtroom needs,” Mr. Dowell said.

Another timely program supported by the OBF is the Court Reporter Rural Service Grant Program. This program aims to increase the availability of court reporters in rural Oklahoma courts by providing educational grants to court-reporting schools for scholarships and equipment. The program also funds stipends for qualified court reporters who agree to work in rural communities.

“Many people don’t understand the negative impact that a critical lack of court reporters has on the effort to provide swift justice for victims and accused alike,” Mr. Dowell said.

Recently, in Woodward County, a frustrated defense attorney waiting outside a busy courtroom discussed with a peer the devastating impact a lack of court reporters has on fair justice for everyone because of the huge scheduling problems in rural courts that have to wait for a visiting court reporter.

Through the OBF, two grant types are available. The first is an Employment Grant, which assists district courts in rural Oklahoma in finding and employing qualified court reporters through a financial incentive grant provided directly to a successful court reporter candidate. The second is an Educational Block Grant, which is awarded to qualified educational institutions with court reporting programs that commit to using grant funds to achieve the objective of meeting court reporter needs in rural Oklahoma. To apply for those grants, visit https://bit.ly/49ZLhfQ.

Judge Jon K. Parsley of the Texas County District Court knows firsthand the ethical issues around making sure this critical court reporting job is filled in all rural courts: “For many years, we have struggled with only one court reporter working for all five judges in the First Judicial District. Our courts simply cannot function without a reporter, so I went on a desperate search for one. The Oklahoma Bar Foundation Court Reporter Rural Services Grant was critical to me in employing a new court reporter. Informing my prospective reporter of the $15,000 grant for taking the job in the Panhandle sealed the deal. I cannot thank the OBF enough for administering the program that has allowed me to keep the court system functioning in the First Judicial District.”

“An organization with this much reach and a mission that is focused but growing every year needs members,” Mr. Dowell said. “I can assure you that even among lawyers, it is not well enough known what all the OBF does. But more importantly, when we talk to them, a lot of people think all this money stays in large city areas. But that is not true at all. We recognize the need for an emphasis in rural Oklahoma and we respond accordingly.”

Ms. Van Horn serves as assistant editor for the Woodward News.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar JournalOBJ 95 No. 4 (April 2024)

Statements or opinions expressed in the Oklahoma Bar Journal are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Oklahoma Bar Association, its officers, Board of Governors, Board of Editors or staff.