Offering a helping hand
December 2019 - Mandy Brown
Kimberly Valentine—the 2019 recipient of AAJ’s Trial Lawyers Care Award—works to transform her community by helping the homeless and applying lessons from her past.
When Mission Viejo, Calif., attorney Kimberly Valentine describes the thriving nonprofit she founded nearly 10 years ago, she details how it aids the homeless, its success metrics, and its fundraising model. But she also talks candidly about what sparked the organization’s mission: her own struggle with homelessness as a teenager and her desire as an adult to teach her children about social responsibility and how to take action to address inequality.
Valentine became homeless at 14. “Being on the street was better than my circumstances elsewhere,” she said. “But it also meant constantly looking for food and a place to sleep. Needs like basic hygiene often couldn’t be met—and you never forget what that feels like.”
After entering the foster care system and being emancipated at 16, Valentine eventually joined the military and then returned to school, ultimately earning her law degree. Her practice focuses on representing vulnerable populations, particularly the elderly. But after about a decade as a plaintiff attorney, she felt compelled to apply her personal experiences to do more for the homeless.
In 2011, she started Operation Helping Hands SoCal in her garage. With a few volunteers, she filled several dozen brown paper bags with hygiene products and headed to an encampment in San Diego where homeless people gather. She asked her son, then 12, to join her.
“I had my youngest child when I was in law school, so he never knew me as anything but a lawyer,” Valentine explained. “He grew up in a bubble in southern California, and despite my best efforts, I was concerned that he might believe that his type of life was normal for everyone. I wanted to make sure that he understood his privilege and had empathy for those in need.”
At the encampment, Valentine’s son gave a bag to a homeless woman who talked with him about her life. “He came back to the car and said, ‘We’re going to go find more people, right?’” That’s when Valentine knew that this needed to be much more than a weekend project.
Today, Operation Helping Hands’ mission is twofold: to assist the homeless and to engage and empower local youth in doing so. Operating out of Valentine’s law office, the organization completes two large distributions per year, handing out backpacks filled with seasonally appropriate items such as sunblock, t-shirts, hygiene items, flip-flops, or blankets. In total, Valentine estimates that Operation Helping Hands has filled nearly 20,000 backpacks, distributed by the many young people who sign up to participate and earn community service hours.
After last year’s devastating wildfires in northern California, the nonprofit started a special initiative to purchase gift cards for those who had been displaced—and attorneys across the nation responded in force. “Lots of people who don’t know me gave generously, and the reaction from AAJ members and others was overwhelming,” said Valentine. “Almost all the funding the nonprofit receives has come from the legal community, and I’ve been thrilled by the support from both the plaintiff and defense bars. Before one deposition, for example, the defense attorney asked me about Operation Helping Hands. I shared information about what we did and why, and that firm selected us as its nonprofit to support that year, making numerous donations. It was fantastic that we could be adversaries in a case yet partners on a separate charitable project.”
Reflecting on her experience as a nonprofit founder, Valentine emphasized that you can’t wait for someone else to fix an injustice. “If you see a need, act to meet it, and act now. Whatever you do, don’t wait. Just one experience can have a tremendous impact, and that’s an incredible feeling. You never know when your one small act might change someone’s life.”
To learn more about Operation Helping Hands SoCal, visit www.ohhsc.com.
Kimberly Valentine is the founder of Operation Helping Hands SoCal and the principal attorney at Valentine Law Group in Mission Viejo, Calif. She can be reached at email@example.com. Mandy Brown is an associate editor for Trial magazine.