Corporate defense attorney, author, and advocate Elizabeth “Liz” Huntley shared her personal story that led to her memoir More Than A Bird at a luncheon fundraiser for the Madison-Morgan Boys & Girls Club (MMBGC) on September 18.
“I’m the ‘why’ behind the ‘how you can do what you can do’ to impact the lives of children who are going to turn around and impact your community,” Huntley stated at the fundraiser.
A wife and mother of three, Huntley also serves on the Board of Trustees for Auburn University, her undergraduate alma mater, and on the Board of Governors for the University of Alabama where she attended law school. She attributes her success to God who she says used people to help her through extremely dark times.
“It makes me so angry when we villainize young, innocent children and criminalize and categorize them just because of the home that they walk out of every day,” Huntley said. “That is such an unfair thing to go ahead and write them off and mark them off just because of where they’re born. It’s not only unfair, it’s unchristian to do that to children.”
Huntley knows firsthand that proper support and a safe space to learn and grow can impact a child’s future. Her parents were drug dealers. Her father was arrested and went to prison when she was five, and her mother became a heroin addict and ultimately committed suicide. Living with her paternal grandmother, she experienced food insecurity and was sexually abused by a relative.
“The brain develops over a process of time, and 90 percent develops before the child reaches age six,” Huntley noted. “This is a really critical time in a child’s life, which is why early intervention is so important.
“When children under the age of six experience adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), (…) those experiences can sometimes, depending on the makeup of that child, be so severe that it actually affects the development of the brain in an adverse way. We know that it affects the neurology of the brain, which means the frontal cortex of the brain cannot develop the way that it should. Why is that important? Well, the frontal cortex is where we process information (…) so imagine a child where the development of that part of the brain is stunted; then that child does not process things properly. That might be the child who everyone is mad at because they don’t know how to sit still, or that might be the child everyone is mad at because you’re yelling and screaming trying to get them to understand something, and they just can’t. All of that can come, literally, from children having ACEs.
“When it’s really severe, children actually outwardly manifest this. We know the first thing is they start to lose their posture; they start to walk slumped over. They become withdrawn. They go into a shell. They don’t talk or communicate with people. They might mumble. Some become completely mute. This is when it’s extremely severe (…); that was me. That is exactly how (past educators) described my demeanor after I moved into my grandmother’s home.
“But we also know this in science. Man does not have any magical pill that they have developed that can fix this – nothing – no medicine out there that can tackle this. There is no psychiatric treatment that man has come up with (…). There’s only one thing that we know for sure in science (…), the one thing that can not only stop that negative neurology happening in a child, but also reverse the damage that’s been done to that child even if you don’t change the bad stuff – that home life. Scientists call it nurturing; I call it love.”
More Than A Bird tells the story of the people in Huntley’s childhood such as educators and church members who provided the love she needed to counteract the dark times in her life.
She noted, “The number one thing that I advocate for in my state – and will not stop advocating for until we have it for all four-year-olds – is high-quality pre-kindergarten and access to it. Early childhood intervention is where it begins because the earlier you start, the less you have to do on the back end.”
Knowing what Boys & Girls Clubs can do for youths, Huntley pointed out the importance of the program and the beneficial impact it has on children.
Tevin Waller, a former MMBGC member who now volunteers at the club, spoke at the fundraiser about his experience. Waller was a part of the club when it was established in 2008 and is now working toward a degree in business finance. He stated that the club was there to encourage and push him when he needed it and was a place that made him feel important.
The event included students from the Morgan County Crossroads School who served food provided by The Caboose. In addition, a special entertainment was enjoyed before Huntley spoke. Bria Anai, who was the youngest top ten singer on American Idol in 2014 and is currently a junior at Clark Atlanta University, performed and received resounding applause. Anai is a former member of the Boys & Girls Club of North Central Georgia (BGCNCG).
Later that afternoon, Huntley visited the club and had a conversation with the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders in attendance. She shared some of her story but left the majority of the time open for questions from the youths.
Serving as an example of what is possible, Huntley told them, “No dream is too big (…however) dreams are nothing but ideas without work.”
Encouraging the students, she asked them to consider what they want to do with their lives and what is needed to make that possible. She added that working hard in school now will help them acquire the tools needed to succeed later.
All of the youths Huntley spoke with received autographed copies of her book, which was written for a 6th grade reading level.
Huntley asserted, “The greatest investment we can make in our community (…) is in our young people. It doesn’t matter how well we think things are while we’re adults; if we don’t raise a group of citizens that can continue that legacy, then we’ve failed.”
The Madison-Morgan Boys & Girls Club currently serves 70 youths a day Monday-Friday from 3:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. With the capacity to work with 90-100 children a day, some of the donations received at the event will fund memberships for those who could not otherwise afford the $65 yearly fee to attend the club. Money raised will also go toward the Date Smart program, which educates kids about healthy relationships, and the Smart Girls W.I.N. program, which teaches girls about positive choices, self-image, and leadership.
For more information about the MMBGC and how to get involved, go to: https://www.bgcncg.com/mmc/.