SOUTH ORANGE — Giving comes naturally for Lorraine Barnett.
Even as a girl growing up on Rutgers Street in Newark, she had that desire to help those in need. In grammar school, there was a young lady in her class who wore old, ragged clothes. Other children picked on her.
“One day, I decided I’m going to give her some of my clothes,” Barnett said. “That was the beginning of my mission.”
Barnett, who is a 75-year-old lawyer and a member of the New Jersey State Bar Association, was inspired to start her journey helping Haiti during college. Yanick DeVastey was a student from Haiti who was the daughter of a government official. They quickly became friends — or as Barnett says, more like sisters — and Barnett went to DeVastey’s home in Haiti.
During that first visit, Barnett was touched by all the poverty.
“To see women sitting on the sidewalk, nursing a baby, you can’t walk away from that and fill yourself at McDonald’s,” Barnett said.
Barnett grew up in an eight-family tenement.
“We thought that was bad housing,” she said. “But people [in Haiti] live almost under the ground, in little shacks, maybe four feet above the ground. And they dig into the ground and make a house underneath. You have to step down to get into the house. You just have a whole country full of people in need.”
DeVastey and Barnett formed a school in La Saline Haiti, which, according to Barnett, is the poorest area. La Saline is a section of Haiti’s capital and notorious for its high crime rate and poverty. “La Saline has such a bad reputation, I had a hard time getting a taxi to go there,” she said. “Nobody wanted to take me.”
But Barnett was courageous.
“I wasn’t afraid,” she said. “I was with people I could identify with. I started off as a young kid working at Woolworth. Life was tough.” She further explained that her father, who had been a pastor in a Baptist church, died before her seventh birthday and her mother never worked outside of the home. Yet she wouldn’t accept welfare.
“That wasn’t her thing,” Barnett said.
Nevertheless, Barnett did very well in school. She was always on the honor roll. A Rutgers undergraduate, she went on to Rutgers Law School and worked for legal services, representing the poor as an in-house counsel for an insurance company and then as a legal auditor for several companies monitoring their legal expense spending. She continued to work in Haiti Missions, while working at what she calls her “secular jobs.”
The La Saline school opened in 1992 with only 40 children between the ages of 4 and 5. By 2010, the school enrolled nearly 500 children. Eventually, the Haitian Medical Association of New Jersey took over the support of the school, according to Barnett.
“I now help support three schools in other parts of the country,” she said. “Whatever I can raise, I send every three months.”
Barnett has written two books, one a collection of poems, “Songs Without Music” and the other, a compilation of nonfiction stories about her life, “Snapshots.” Proceeds from these books benefit children from Haiti. “ProBono Missions, I incorporated,” she said.
The South Orange resident has seven children and lost one in 2020. She also has seven grandchildren.
Those interested in supporting ProBono Missions can contact Barnett at ProBonoMissions @hotmail.com or call 973-762-1737. Donations can be sent to P.O. Box 647, South Orange, NJ 07079.