By Janie Magruder
What a difference a hand up makes.
Nearly seven years ago, K Royal was living in Tennessee with her two young daughters, escaping a violent marriage, working as a nurse and saving money for law school. When summer day care for the girls became an issue, a local YWCA branch offered to pay in exchange for a promise.
"They asked me only to promise that when I became an attorney I would go back and help others," said Royal, director of Pro Bono Programs and Student Life at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. "They showed me that even the smallest act can make a significant difference in someone's life."
It's a lesson that Royal, a 2004 alumna of the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, has taken to heart. She started volunteering her first semester of law school and hasn't stopped since, expanding existing opportunities and creating new programs for students to give back to their communities and donating her own time to various organizations, too.
Now, the relationship between Royal and the YWCA has come full circle. She's among 11 local leaders recently named to the Tribute to Women Class of 2007 by the YWCA of Maricopa County. Royal will receive the Education Leader Award during a luncheon Thursday, March 8, at the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa in Phoenix.
"This is a huge honor, and I do not consider myself worthy, but this will make sure that I keep trying," she said. "Considering that the YWCA was one of my first supporters, the award is especially poignant to me."
Royal's College of Law classmate, Arizona State Rep. Krysten Sinema of Phoenix, also is being honored by the YWCA and will receive the Emerging Leader Award.
From the time Royal was young, growing up poor in rural Mississippi, she has been advancing the YWCA's mission of eliminating racism and empowering women.
"Her grandfather disowned her in high school for giving a ride to another student who was African-American," Tempe attorney Kari Granville wrote in her nomination letter. "K took on the school administration who had forbidden a mixed-race couple from going to the ball."
Even as Royal was escaping an abusive relationship, she offered to teach life-skill classes to abused women at the YWCA, and she was the first volunteer for the Crime Victims' Legal Assistance Project, a collaboration of the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law and Arizona Voice for Crime Victims.
Royal holds the record among ASU law students for volunteering, with more than 830 hours, an accomplishment that played into her award as Maricopa County Bar Association's outstanding student of 2004 and receiving the Dean Emeritus Alan Matheson Service Award that year.
"I can't think of anyone more deserving," said Matheson, professor and Dean Emeritus at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law. "Her enthusiasm is contagious, and she brings the best out in our students."
Royal's expectations of them are high, and they've delivered. Last year, students contributed more than 62,000 hours of law-related public service to low-income and underserved populations. The fair-market value of these services was over $6.2 million.
"It is my goal that every single law student that comes through here will take the time to act for someone in need, if even in a small way," she said. "It is not just the underserved public that needs this help - it is the individual law student who won't find heart within four walls and stacks of papers - and the legal profession as a whole, which is rediscovering quality of life."
Kristen Kaleo, a third-year law student and chair of the Pro Bono Board, recalls the first time she met Royal, during an orientation two years ago.
"She was scary, and I remember thinking she was not somebody I would find approachable," said Kaleo, who for that reason had second thoughts when someone suggested she apply for the board. "Of course, she was completely fabulous and one of the easiest people to talk to. She is committed and completely passionate, but she's not at all scary."
She shares Royal's philosophy that busy law students and attorneys can - and should - make time to help others.
"What I've gotten from K is an understanding of how much you can do for the betterment of people when you're involved in law, with a limited amount of effort," she said.
Royal, who lives with husband, Tim Foley, and her daughters, Dazlin, 15, and Charis, 13, and her niece, Chelsea Harmon, 17, is involved with Wills for Heroes, which donates free legal services to emergency personnel, Best Buddies, which benefits disabled people, and Arizona Quest for Kids, which helps low-income kids stay in school and aspire to attend college.
One of her proudest achievements is a program that requires law students to teach constitutional law at South Mountain High in Phoenix, an experience that often teaches them as much as the high school kids.
"They come out of it with the idea that these kids are more concerned with what it takes to stay alive. They're not looking 10 years into the future, they're looking one year ahead," Royal said. "Some are wondering whether they're going to be able to feed their children or others whether they'll even have a home. Drugs and violence are part of their lives."
"And our law students will never look at their clients the same way again."