A visit to an orphanage during a high school trip to Kenya in 2007 opened up a world of possibility for Morgan Abbott ’16, and even shaped the direction of her future law study.
“I walked into the doors of the New Life Homes when I was 17 and it contradicted every single notion I’d ever had in my mind of what aid in the developing world looks like,” Abbott says. “It far surpasses most children’s facilities I’ve seen in the United States.” Abbott was impressed by the care the children received at the children’s home, one of a network run by New Life Home Trust, a Christian nongovernmental organization — and by the aid workers’ success in securing safe and loving adoptive homes within Kenya for most of the children by age 3. Still, she saw room for improvement.
“They had children spread out over multiple homes in different parts of Kenya with a very limited team of social workers and attorneys trying to handle all the paperwork, yet none of the records were electronic,” she says.
This led to delays while files were mailed or couriered from place to place, which also raised the possibility of records being lost.
— Morgan Abbott '16Sometimes I’m sitting in class and something will pop into my mind and I think, I wouldn’t have been able to relate to this if it wasn’t for my experience in East Africa. And I’m eternally grateful for that.”
In 2009, as a sophomore minoring in entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Abbott founded a nonprofit, Carolina for Amani, to bring New Life Homes into the digital age. Securing a social entrepreneurship grant from the university, she spent each of her undergraduate summers in Kenya, digitizing and archiving files going back to 1989. During the school year she raised funds through grants and private donations to expand the organization and enlisted cadres of student volunteers to join her in Kenya. Her work quickly paid off.
“Just having everything easily accessible sped up the adoption process significantly,” she says. “Our goal was always to help the children get into families quickly, yet safely.”
She also savors the intangible and sentimental benefits of the work.
“We’re preserving memories these children wouldn’t be able to have otherwise,” Abbott says. “We’re scanning documents like children’s birth certificates, photos of them when they’re three days old — things that I’m so thankful my parents kept for me.”
Abbott led the organization until her 2012 graduation and remains on its board. She is gratified to have built a sustainable organization that sends more than a dozen student volunteers to Kenya each summer.
“It’s still entirely student-run. They’re rocking and rolling without me,” she says.
Following her graduation, Abbott spent a year in Gulu, Uganda, where she worked with International Justice Mission, a nonprofit human rights organization, on land disputes on behalf of widows and orphans displaced by regional conflicts.
“It was a new field office and I love being in a start-up culture, so it was an exciting opportunity,” says Abbott. “It was kind of my chance to go and have a grand adventure.” It was one that led her away, however, from a career in international development.
“If you read my law school application to Duke, which I submitted right after I moved to Uganda, it said, ‘I want to spend my life saving the babies of East Africa,’” Abbott says. “But I realized that my brilliant co-workers were better equipped to do that work than I could ever be, simply because they belong to the community and they understand it in a way I never could. But I learned that I want to be doing for my community in Raleigh, where I grew up, what my Ugandan co-workers are doing for theirs.”
Now aiming for a legal career in her hometown, Abbott jokes that having led her nonprofit, “I’ve hired 40 people but I had never been interviewed for a job,” until she was on her 1L summer job hunt. She is dividing her summer between work as a government relations intern at the Conservation Trust for North Carolina as a Stanback fellow, and as a summer associate at Smith Anderson in Raleigh. And she continues to help children as a guardian ad litem in Alamance County, N.C.
“I’m really blessed and fortunate that I was able, at such a young age, to have these experiences that led to where I am,” she says. “Sometimes I’m sitting in class and something will pop into my mind and I think, I wouldn’t have been able to relate to this if it wasn’t for my experience in East Africa. And I’m eternally grateful for that.”