By Rachel Ganong '12
Good things come in threes, and the adage is especially evident in the career of John Scanelli, a 1972 graduate of William & Mary Law School. A real estate lawyer turned real estate investor, Scanelli has recently embarked on a third career -- this time investing in the education of Caribbean youth.
In doing so, he and his wife Brenda have exemplified the Law School's Citizen Lawyer ideal, which marries the concept of professional excellence with civic leadership.
The Scanellis have spent a lifetime preparing for the latest endeavor of their professional and personal lives, but they couldn't have anticipated that a chance meeting during a vacation on the sun-swathed beaches of the Caribbean islands would lead them to an entirely new avocation, one that expanded their sphere of public service from the City of Norfolk, Va., to the globe.
In 1969, when John began law school, the Scanellis took the first steps on a journey of civic service. Taking courses in tax and business law with the goal of becoming an Air Force lawyer, John encountered the concept of the Citizen Lawyer among his professors, law school administrators, and classmates.
"I think it was more exemplified than talked about," he said, recalling professors who served on city planning board commissions, volunteered for pro bono work, and pioneered in courses that allowed students to gain hands-on experience helping the community. "Students couldn't help but pick up on that."
Brenda noticed the Law School's emphasis on public service, too. "It was practical," she recalled. "It was get involved with life, the community, and the law."
After two and a half years, John received his law degree. With the reduction in American forces in Vietnam after the war, he instead set his sights on a career in real estate law, an area he learned to relish during an internship through William & Mary. After working for a firm in Washington, D.C., and Norfolk, John partnered with law school classmate Rand Shapiro '72 to establish the firm of Scanelli & Shapiro based in Norfolk.
In the meantime, John and Brenda were inadvertently developing their own model of the Citizen Lawyer philosophy. Despite busy careers and the responsibility of raising two children, the couple capitalized on opportunities to help their community.
Amidst a 15-year career establishing a 14-lawyer firm, teaching as an adjunct professor at the Law School, followed by another 15-year career as a real estate investor, John saw the cities of Norfolk and Virginia Beach change from relatively undeveloped cities ripe with real estate potential to one of the largest defense outposts in the nation. If it was a good time to be a real estate lawyer with the demise of the Savings and Loan Associations in the 1970s, it was also an excellent time to be a Norfolk real estate investor in the 1980s and 1990s.
Despite frequent business travel and a frenetically paced career, John helped a non-profit organization secure its own building, delivered meals to the homebound, and led Boy Scouts. Meanwhile, Brenda, a teacher with a master's degree in early childhood education, was volunteering with the local hospital auxiliary and with neighborhood improvement projects. In the latter endeavor, she helped transform an overgrown burial ground for victims of a nineteenth century Yellow Fever epidemic into a memorial garden blocks from their Norfolk home.
"When you have children and are very much involved with them, you can't help but get involved in Little League and Brownies," he said.
"You just kind of end up doing a little here and a little there," Brenda added. "Each one of us can make a contribution."
Their help-where-you-can attitude paired with the skills they gained in their careers and volunteer opportunities prepared them to exemplify the Citizen Lawyer ideal beyond the city limits of Norfolk to a global community.
Their next opportunity for public service came in 2002 while they were vacationing with their daughter on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, part of the two-island nation of the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis in the Leeward Islands. Always in search of a good beach, they marveled at the mangrove- and monkey-covered island with its white sand and crystalline water.
During the trip, John contacted a St. Kitts lawyer who spent half of his days working in real estate and the other half offering legal help to islanders. The lawyer mentioned that a fire destroyed the library of a nearby home for abused and abandoned children, and the Scanellis offered to help replace the lost books with a collection of 500 new ones.
They were astounded by the gratitude they received from the people there. "They're proud but they're also gracious," Brenda said. "There's this level of courtesy that runs through the community. It's beautiful."
Before leaving St. Kitts, they visited the children's home, establishing what would become their routine of meeting with stakeholders in order to identify and to meet needs effectively.
Seeing the need first hand was an emotional experience and tugged at their heartstrings. The 26 children, ages two to eighteen had little in the material world, yet they were happy and their hearts were filled with love to share. The grounds of the home needed work; security was an issue because the fence surrounding the two concrete structures sagged under the weight of overgrown vegetation. The library was burned out, the kitchen equipment and furnishings needed upgrading, play equipment was lacking, yet the children and staff were kind, polite, and loving.
The scene tugged at their hearts and opened their eyes to the needs of the children around them.
"It brought me to tears, and it still does to this day," Brenda said. "How do you not help?" "How do you walk away?," John said.
With education and experience cementing their commitment to service, they agreed to help the children's home at the request of its board of trustees. A local shipping company offered to ship a 40-foot crate for free if they could fill it with supplies from the United States.
John and Brenda ran with the offer, unversed in the ways of international shipping and unsure how they would accomplish the mission before them.
"We knew absolutely nothing about fundraising, shipping, etcetera," John said.
But, to their surprise, they realized that they had the skills needed. They had worked the phones before, organized volunteers before, and bargained for good causes before. And using the same skills, they secured a shipping container, located a trucking company, networked for roofing and fencing supplies, and even redirected discarded Virginia Beach school playground equipment bound for a local landfill to the needs of St. Kitts' children.
A year later, they returned to St. Kitts and helped city workers, St. Kitts' Boy Scouts, prison inmates, Rotarians, local businesses, and villagers revamp the children's home, which is now operating with the assistance of a locally run auxiliary organization that started as a result of the Scanellis' help. In the process, John set his real estate skills to work to secure a certificate of title for the children's home property.
"The community effort was amazing," John said, something they never would have realized without first seeing a need.
"We became catalysts to the process of identifying problems that needed to be solved," Brenda said.
And that was just the start. After they helped the children's home, the chief education officer for St. Kitts asked them for help furnishing schools, which routinely lacked seats and desks for many half of their students aside from novelties like playgrounds and teaching resources.
"There were 17 elementary schools on the island, and not one had a playground," Brenda recalled.
Thanks to Brenda's educational experience, the Scanellis were apt listeners when it came to hearing about school needs in the Caribbean islands and skilled in funneling repurposed supplies from American schools to Caribbean schools.
After they helped schools in St. Kitts, they received calls from neighboring Nevis and from the Caribbean island of Antigua. After that, calls came from Dominica and other islands. As the calls rolled in, help from the Scanellis shipped out.
"We promote a partnership," John said. "We ask the government to be responsible for all the containers once they arrive. Principals and teachers go out and galvanize the village to help."
In this way, they've sent more than 20 40-foot shipping containers filled with desks, chairs, teaching resources, and playground and other school equipment to six Caribbean islands. To do so, they've enlisted the help of local governments, friends, charitably minded businesses, and other volunteers.
John insists that every item shipped bears a sticker with the words 'From a friend in America.' The little stickers, placed on every book, filing cabinet, microscope, and other items sent, serve as ambassadors of good will between America and wherever the recycled items start their second life.
For John and Brenda, supplying Caribbean schools has imported the Caribbean into their community and exported their ideal of the Citizen Lawyer.
Summing up their philosophy of citizen leadership, John said, "Everyone says, 'Who are you with?' and I say, 'We're just John and Brenda and whoever wants to help.'"