Orrick partner Robert Benson has published a new book, Love Forward: Hope, Healing and Justice for a Broken World. It tells the story of how a single act of love changed the trajectory of not only Robert’s own life, but also the lives of hundreds of others across cultures, countries and generations.
You can find out more about Love Forward and read a few featured stories here. The book is available for purchase on Amazon; all profits will be used to provide higher education for students in developing countries who were separated from their families due to abuse, abandonment and similar circumstances.
Robert shares his story of the new book and his nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting higher education for neglected children in developing countries in the Q&A below.
How did you get started on this path? What led you to volunteer in Central America initially?
I was abused, neglected, and abandoned during my early childhood. On one occasion, I was hospitalized for severe malnutrition, and on another, for severe pneumonia. Eventually, my mother abandoned me on the street, and I was placed in a shelter in Santa Clara County. Several months later, a couple brought me home and later adopted me. Although I was emotionally abused by my adopted mother, I was grateful to have a good home, and they sent me to a small private school growing up.
As a result of this history, I wanted to help other abused and abandoned children, but I didn’t know where to start. In the mid-1990s, my church began sending volunteer teams to Central America, and I signed up for several of those trips. One thing led to another, and within a few years, I took the initiative to partner with people I had met in Nicaragua—and later on, four other countries—to establish family-based homes to care for children who had been separated from their families due to abandonment or abuse. Then in 1999, I started Arms of Love International, a section 501(c)(3) public charity, as a means for raising the funds that were needed to sustain the operation of the homes.
Describe the biggest challenge/obstacle you’ve faced in your work with and on behalf of these children.
No matter how much we were doing, there was always more to be done. A few years after starting Arms of Love, I found myself stretched way too thin. I was leading a global organization while working as a partner at another law firm, and at home, I had a family with several young children. Every day, I was encountering endless needs, but I had limited time, finances, and other resources. I was engaged in a constant struggle—I enjoyed a relatively high standard of living in the U.S., but I was continually aware that with a modest increase in monthly funding, Arms of Love could care for a few more children. Children who were still living on the streets or in abusive environments. Children who had faces and names that were always in my mind. I was functioning somewhere in a no-mans-land between “First World” living and some of the most extreme poverty in the world. No matter how I allocated my resources, I was haunted by the thoughts “you are not doing enough” and “you can do more.”
Living in this tension, I was always pushing the envelope. Starting new projects. Receiving new kids. Time, money, and other resources were always insufficient to meet all of the competing demands, and eventually, I hit a breaking point. Among other things, my marriage nearly ended. It took many years to rebalance my life, refocus my efforts, build a better infrastructure to support the work, and be content with helping a limited number of children and doing it well.
Today, Arms of Love continues to operate eight homes in Nicaragua and the Philippines, and it operates completely independent of my involvement and support. I have transitioned my focus to new endeavors, including this book and a new nonprofit. And this year, Kristen and I celebrated our 28th wedding anniversary. But it took a lot of hard work to get here.
How did you first get the idea for writing this book?
Fifteen years ago, every time I shared my story of being abandoned as a child and then starting children’s homes around the world, someone would say, “You should write a book.” I politely nodded and thought, “First, no one will actually read it. And second, how narcissistic would that be?”
But a few years ago, I began reflecting on the fact that the Arms of Love homes are now caring for a second generation of children. The first generation is approaching age 30. They overcame immense obstacles to become college graduates and working professionals. Many have children of their own. They are impacting their communities in unique ways, their lives altered by the love, care, and mentoring they received from people who had no previous connection to them.
That’s when I saw the opportunity to tell our collective story. One that is multi-cultural and multi-generational. So I reached out to several “graduates” of the Arms of Love homes—Myla, Juan, Anzelie, and Yessica—to learn more about the paths their lives had taken. In the process, we came to realize that we are part of a much larger story, one in which thousands of people connected through Arms of Love to profoundly change hundreds of lives—and through them, countless others.
So what is the book Love Forward about?
In Love Forward, I share my personal story along with the life stories of Myla, Anzelie, Juan, and Yessica, written in their own voices, using their own words, from their own perspectives. It is horrific what they have each been through. Their experiences include physical and sexual abuse, abandonment, murder and attempted murder, living on the streets or in jails, stealing to survive, and other tragic circumstances. As I alternate between our early stories, before they weave together as a result of Arms of Love, there are parts of the first few chapters that are difficult to read.
But most of the book focuses on what has happened since. A combination of courage, strength, faith, hope, and perseverance brought each of them to where they are today. And there comes a point, in each story, where genuine love, kindness, and compassion from many different people helps change the direction of their lives and empower them toward a brighter future.
It all relates back to a single act of love, when a very ordinary couple took me home from a shelter in 1968. The resulting narrative provides just a tiny slice of the ripple effect that their love has had in the 50 years since, across cultures, countries, and generations.
How did the writing of this book impact you personally?
When I began collaborating with Myla, Anzelie, Juan, and Yessica, I was not prepared for what I would learn and what we would process together during the writing of the book. What impacted me the most was learning how each of the women had survived interfamilial rape or incest—in some cases, over a period of many years. For example, Myla described herself as being the “sex slave” of her father, who began raping her regularly at the age of six. She shared how she were afraid to tell anyone, for fear of being killed. When she did share with others, she was not believed. And when people did learn of the abuse, they refused to help. Myla ran away several times, with her younger siblings, but each time they were caught and brought back. At the age of 13, Myla became pregnant as a result of this abuse, and she gave her child up for adoption.
Today, Myla is an incredible person and a deep thinker who compassionately helps others, holds a degree in psychology, and is employed as the Director of Human Resources at her company.
Working with Myla and the others in writing this book had a profound impact on me, in part because their experiences hit so close to home. Someone in my family was sexually abused when she was young. The daughter of one of my friends was raped not long ago. Thus, in the new scholarship program we are starting, we will be prioritizing students who have experienced gender-based violence. Violence against women is a significant global issue that we need to battle on many fronts, and when it impacts youth, it often derails their education, from elementary school on up. One of the most frequently lost dreams is that of a college education. Restoring that dream of pursuing a higher education is one of many ways that we can value people who have been devalued by others and empower them in a way that brings a measure of justice, equality, and restoration into their lives.
When the first full draft of the book was completed as a result of our collaboration, and Myla read the draft of her chapters, she wrote to me and said, “I was crying here reading my own stories. I am forever thankful to God and to you for making my life wonderful and meaningful.” Then referring to a summation sentence that I had drafted at the end of one of her chapters, she wrote, “You are correct … the love I have received is the same love that I will give, again and again.” Those are the moments that keep moving me forward.
What do you hope readers gain from your book?
The people that I collaborated with had several objectives in mind. They told me that they wanted to tell their stories to encourage others who struggle with current or past abuse; to impact how we view, value, and treat one another, especially across genders and cultures; to raise awareness; and to inspire others toward purposeful acts of love and kindness, knowing that it can make a huge difference in the lives of others. For sacrificing their privacy to help others, they are the heroes of this book.
Ultimately, we hope that by getting a glimpse of the profound impact that even a single act of love can have, readers will be inspired to continue our story in their own unique ways, engaging in new acts of love and kindness that can have a far reaching impact on our world.
How can we get involved?
Some of my colleagues and clients at Orrick are working with me to start a new section 501(c)(3) public charity that will provide college scholarships for students in developing countries who come from similar backgrounds. For example, Denise Mingrone and Christy Von der Ahe are two of the people serving with me on the board of our new non-profit. This new effort will take the scholarship program successfully developed by Arms of Love for its own graduates and make the same opportunities available for students aging-out of other residential programs in those countries.
One thing that impressed me is how much Myla, Juan, Anzelie, and Yessica valued their university education. For each of them, studying in college and completing a degree was the fulfillment of a dream. They shared that their diplomas were critical to securing employment and advancing in their current professions. And without a further education, I have seen many young adults age-out of residential programs and slip back into the extreme poverty and other struggles of their families of birth.
If people are interested in helping with our new scholarship program, people can email me and I will help facilitate their involvement in the coming months. We will be starting new programs in Nicaragua, the Philippines, and India in 2018. We have also launched a new website to promote the book, www.loveforward.com, and people can donate to the new scholarship programs through the website. All of the support we receive will be used to launch those new programs.