[Noozhawk’s note: One in a series of articles highlighting Santa Barbara’s Man and Woman of the Year awards. The nomination period for 2013 honors is open through Aug. 30.]

When Catherine Swysen left family and friends in Belgium 27 years ago, she never imagined that she would become a partner in a Santa Barbara law firm. She had graduated with an MA from the Université Libre de Bruxelles and arrived in Santa Barbara speaking no English. She took odd jobs and finally landed a position at UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Black Studies.

Swysen traveled an unusual path to success and felt it was important to share her good fortune with others. She decided the best way was to get involved in social causes and she joined a project sponsored by the ACLU to represent some of the Marielitos (people who came from Cuba in the 1980 Mariel boatlift) being held at the Lompoc federal prison. They had served their time, but lacked any kind of immigration status and could therefore be held indefinitely.

One of many lay volunteers, Swysen represented them at immigration hearings and secured sponsorships, jobs and housing without which they could not leave the prison. The ACLU’s project facilitated many releases. The experience led Swysen to enroll at the Santa Barbara College of Law.

After three and half years of working during the day and attending law school at night, Swysen began practicing law in 1994. Although she now works up to 60 hours a week, she still devotes time to inspiring children in Santa Barbara and in Chad in Central Africa. She became involved with Santa Barbara Partners in Education, a nonprofit organization that connects businesses and individuals with schools to help students understand the ties between the classroom and the real world, while gaining exposure to a variety of career paths.

“Many kids have so much potential but do not realize it,” Swysen explained.

In 2007, Swysen joined a local group traveling to southern Chad (the fifth poorest country in the world) to improve lives by building schools and simple solar units, providing mosquito nets, and increasing awareness of the rights of women and children.

“We are so wealthy here in Santa Barbara,” Swysen said. “In Chad we can do a lot with just $100.”

Members of the group continue to visit annually on their own dime.

“We do not always appreciate what we have,” she said.

When she speaks to school classes, Swysen stresses the importance of giving back to the community — locally or far away. She expands students’ horizons by describing conditions in Chad and shows them how fortunate they are to attend school. She also shares her experience as an immigrant.

“It is OK to mess up,” she tells the students, smiling as she remembers the mistakes she made — from wearing the wrong clothes to using the wrong words. She still makes language mistakes but that, she tells the kids, does not stop her from being a good attorney.

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Volunteers enrich all our lives.

Do you know a volunteer who has made a significant impact on the Santa Barbara community? You can nominate that person to be the next Man or Woman of the Year! Click here to fill out a simple online nomination form. Sponsored by the Santa Barbara Foundation, Noozhawk and KDB, nominations are open until Aug. 30.

— Suzanne Farwell represents the Santa Barbara Foundation.