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In order to best serve others, you must first fortify yourself.

In the last several years, I have spent a lot of time thinking about these words. When someone chooses a career of service, no matter the type, there is often a tendency to believe that you can’t truly serve others unless you become truly selfless. For the last almost 18 years, I have had the honor and privilege to represent wrongfully convicted clients while leading the Innocence Project of Florida. We have created a client-centered culture and the nature of our work, which often lasts for many years, has allowed me and our team to make deep, lasting relationships with our clients and their families.

These relationships are evident in the touching photos and videos from when our wrongfully convicted clients are finally freed. We, as their lawyers and advocates, get to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our clients as they walk of the court or jail and are treated like family ourselves. It’s a unique experience and each of our clients have impacted my life in immeasurable ways. Many of these men and women continue to look to me and members of IPF’s team for advice, assistance and friendship long after their deserved release from wrongful incarceration.

But many in the public don’t get to see the other side of that coin. For every wrongfully convicted man or woman who is freed, there are as many or more of our clients for whom justice did not prevail, where courts ratified bad behavior and continued recalcitrance from authorities and looked past clear evidence of injustice in favor of procedural excuses for rejection. I am reminded of one particular (and final) conversation with a client sentenced to life in prison whose case was righteous and the evidence used to convict him specious. Yet, we lost. I lost. I was unable to bring him the justice he was due. In this last meeting, after I told him we were out of ways to overturn his conviction in the courts, he looked me straight in the eyes and asked me “does that mean I am going to die in this place?” While I was able to cobble together a professional, compassionate answer, I didn’t truly have an answer for him that would alleviate his disappointment, worry and dread. My sadness for him and my anger at a system that wouldn’t rectify the injustice against him, stuck to me. All the losses over many years stick to you and accumulate. They eat at you and make you less effective as an advocate and as a person, despite exterior appearances to the contrary. We don’t talk about this or deal with it directly. Some of us leave this work. Others just soldier on given that there is always more vital work to be done.

The point is that it isn’t at all selfless to forget about yourself under the guise of service to others. You have to take care of yourself in order to be the best version of yourself for others, whether they are your clients, family, co-workers, or friends.

So back to the present. IPF, among its many helpful benefits, provides its staff members a six-week paid sabbatical after so-many years of service to the organization and its clients. I wanted to use this well-earned time to do something unique; to embark on a bit of a journey that would allow me an opportunity to recalibrate and rejuvenate. My hope is that in this time I can fortify myself for the next era of the Innocence Project of Florida and all the important work we will do together. 

This is why I am going to walk El Camino de Santiago, particularly the Camino Frances, which is a 500-mile walkover 33 days  from St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France, across the Pyrenees and the whole of northern Spain to Santiago de Compostella. I may even walk an additional 75 miles, with only the things I need in a rucksack on my back. The Camino de Santiago has long been a religious pilgrimage over a series of routes from that begin as far away as Poland and Sweden. Now, while many still walk for religious reasons, many others, like myself, walk for the challenge, for both the contemplation in solitude and camaraderie with other pilgrims, to be in and close to nature and hopefully to have a transformational experience that will change one for the better when they come home.

As I get ready to begin this journey, I am reminded of all of the freed innocent men and women who have embarked on their own journeys to find peace in a changed world after so many years of wrongful incarceration. I am also reminded of all our former and current clients who remain wrongfully incarcerated who are lonely and disconnected and wrongful physical restraint is preventing them from enjoying their own journeys. They don’t have the Freedom to Walk.

So, even though this time will be mine, I would be remiss if I didn’t share it with IPF and all of you. In honor of all of the men and women wrongfully convicted, those freed and those still without freedom, I want to also walk for them and will embark on Freedom to Walk. Throughout this journey, both in this space and on IPF’s social media channels, we’ll be chronicling my journey—the highs and lows, the excitement and monotony, the human connections and solitude and the challenges and the beauty. 

Through this lens, we’ll also use these touchpoints as an opportunity to reflect on the challenges of those freed from wrongful incarceration and those still wrongfully incarcerated and what we can all do together to improve the lives of the wrongfully convicted. To that end, Freedom to Walk is a unique opportunity to raise necessary funds to assist those freed from wrongful incarceration. 

As IPF has continued success and more freed innocents move to Florida from other states, the need to support those freed from wrongful incarceration to aid their reintegration back into free society has increased substantially. Through the efforts of our Director of Transition Services Anthony Scott, LCSW and employing about $60,000 each year from our Exoneree Support Fund, we have provided critical assistance to our freed clients so they can achieve stability, safety and happiness in their freedom. From assistance with groceries, housing, transportation, communication, medical co-pays, education and job training, IPF is committed to helping our freed clients thrive. You can best support me in my journey by investing in the future of the freed men and women on their journey through a gift to our exoneree support efforts. 

I am anxious to set out on March 4 to take a needed break so I can return with a renewed focus, ready to meet the challenges that this work brings. I am equally excited to share my experience with all of you along the way. Combined with our generous matching fund provided by Dr. Sarah H. Pappas, we can together make a significant, positive impact on the lives of the freed innocent men and women in Florida who lost so much to wrongful incarceration so their individual journeys will be as happy, healthy and fruitful as I hope mine will be.


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