Liz Huntley: Serving the State

January 28, 2016

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liz lfw photoThe journey for Liz Huntley’s (’97) advocacy work for children began when she was in preschool.

It was in preschool where teachers nurtured her, taught her how to read and gave her the motivation to succeed.

“I can assure you I would have been a different student without that foundation,” she said.

As Huntley excelled in school, several people stepped into her life, giving her the love and affection that would ultimately help her overcome poverty and abuse.

By the time Huntley was 5 years old, she had endured a lifetime of tragedies. Her parents were drug dealers, and her father was incarcerated for selling drugs. Her mother tried to continue without him, but she broke the fundamental rule of drug dealing. She consumed her own product and became a heroin addict. One day without any notice, her mother left her five children with three sets of relatives, went home and committed suicide. Huntley then lived with her grandmother, where she was sexually and physically abused by relatives and witnessed domestic violence so intense she was sometimes placed in foster care.

Today, Huntley, a litigation attorney at Lightfoot, Franklin & White LLC in Birmingham, is an an advocate for early childhood education and sexual abuse prevention.

She is a member of the board for the Alabama School Readiness Alliance, a statewide, nonprofit coalition advocating for the expansion of high quality, voluntary pre-k. As part of the coalition, she and other members have proposed a 10-year plan to expand the number of voluntary pre-k programs throughout the state. The Alabama Legislature and Governor Robert Bentley support the plan, and the state has secured a federal grant to help the program achieve its goal.

“The way to really address education in Alabama is to start with children at an early age,” Huntley said. “We have kids who enter classrooms for the first time with so many differences and gaps with what they already know when they come to the table. If we make sure all children have access to high quality early education and a good foundation when they enter school, it will raise the bar in classrooms for all children.”

In 2015, Huntley was appointed to the Governor’s Task Force on Prevention of Sexual Abuse of Children, which recommended establishing child sexual abuse programs to encourage children to come forward and creating policies that will strengthen existing laws governing individuals who work with children.

Children will often leave hints and clues about what’s going on in their lives, and Huntley shares her own story as a reminder that abuse doesn’t always look how some might expect.

“I was the happiest, most smiling child you would ever know,” she said. “The signs are not always a withdrawn kid who looks victimized.”

That is just one reason Huntley is now marrying her passion for child advocacy with her law practice.

Several judges have appointed her as a guardian ad litem in personal injury cases that involve children, and she represents them during settlement fairness hearings to make sure the children’s interests are taken into consideration. Huntley also represents state agencies that serve children and families, ensuring they have the proper policies and procedures in place to protect the children under their care. Later this year, she plans to become a certified mediator so that she can help communities navigate complex issues such as making the transition from court-ordered desegregation to unitary status.

“The practice of law is a beautiful thing in that you can be anything you want to be,” she said. “It gives you such a great base: work ethic, discipline, commitment to a good work product. The values that you are taught in law school transcend professional lines.”

Those who know Huntley well are not surprised by her success and her desire to give back to the community. She is a member of the Auburn University Board of Trustees, Chair of the Farrah Law Alumni Society and a motivational speaker, with a TedX Birmingham talk to her credit.

“She had visions way beyond her years when she was younger,” said Olivia Washington, who first met Huntley when she was a child in preschool. Washington was then the Executive Director of the Community Action Agency that funded the preschool program where Huntley learned how to read.

Washington saw the roots of advocacy taking ahold of Huntley when she started a tutoring program in high school and raised money from individuals and churches to fund it.

“She gave when she didn’t have anything to give in terms of finances to get the materials and supplies she needed to operate community programs,” Washington said.

Moments after meeting Huntley sitting quietly in the front row of her first-grade classroom at Clanton Elementary School, Pam Jones declared she would be the best first-grader she has ever had. And Huntley has proved her correct.

“It does not surprise me anymore,” Jones said. “I just have come to expect the unexpected form Liz.”

Jones was proud when Huntley took the advice of Don Logan, former CEO of Time Warner and owner of the Birmingham Barons, and wrote and self-published her memoir, More Than a Bird. The book follows her emotional journey through poverty and abuse, and it profiles the men and women who helped her succeed, including her pastor, Elijah Good, who eventually took her into his home when she was a teen-ager and who she now calls dad. A portion of the book’s proceeds benefit the Alabama School Readiness Alliance and the Children’s Village of Birmingham, a group home for neglected and abused children that allows siblings to stay together.

Together with her co-author Cole Peck, Huntley is developing a reflection guide for her memoir called #DefineYourself so that teenagers can use her life as a guide to make sound choices and decisions. Peck is a Birmingham native and an English student at Washington and Lee University. Huntley asked him to join her because “it’s important when you’re writing to get perspective from the generation you’re dealing with.”

The only explanation Huntley gives for why she has thrived when so many others have not is that God placed people in her life at the exact time she needed them.

“He did all of this,” she said. “It’s clearly part of a larger plan somewhere.”