You probably wouldn’t guess it if you met me now, but before joining the Pacesetter team I went to law school for juvenile criminal defense. Though in the end I did not pursue a long-term career in law, my education shaped my perspective on the world and provided me with important critical thinking skills. To this day, my passion for helping children and families in need continues from a volunteer perspective, and informs my business decisions too.

I believe that our experiences shape who we are and what we believe in, and that our passions should inform our personal and professional endeavors. Here are four things I learned while studying criminal defense and working with troubled youth that shaped my life.

1. A keen sense of empathy goes a long way

We like to think all kids are sheltered by loving parents, and this unfortunately isn’t always true. Many of the kids I worked with were abandoned by their parents if not physically, psychologically. Most of these kids had joined gangs, not because violence was appealing, but because the gangs took them in and treated them like family. This was sometimes the only family they had.

I remember one mother in particular who told the court they could lock up her son who was there on a minor charge because she didn’t want to take care of him. Kids make mistakes, and don’t always have the life experience or money to protect themselves. For those looking in from the outside, it can be easy to judge. Empathy goes a long way and is critical in all facets of life.

Underserved populations, like troubled children, should not be cast aside. When choosing philanthropic initiatives, I always keep this in mind. In business, I also practice empathy to better understand my associates and meet their needs.

2. When you see an issue, try to fix it at its root

My time working for the juvenile public defenders’ office also taught me that society at large has a responsibility to make sure law and order work to help children more than punish them. For child offenders, rehabilitation is a must.

I am not naïve to believe that every child can be helped and I know that no child can be helped if we do not create a process that is set out to help rehabilitate them. Many youth offenders originally end up detained because of drug use. They end up committing further crimes because they meet other kids in detention and are exposed to harder drugs and/or violence. My goal was to give them an alternative path; to provide them with the tools and resources to make better choices. Without society stepping up and providing alternative options, all these kids will know is crime. Society must help provide a path out.

There is a place for punishment in law and order, just as there is a case for discipline in families and reprimands in business. But I’ve learned that this is not the whole path forward. If my dog pees inside, telling her she’s a bad dog and leaving it at that, or worse, sending her back to the pound, is not a fruitful reaction. I have to teach her that she needs to go outside. If at work associate makes a mistake, firing them should not be the first course of action. Find out where the issue really lies, and fix it at the source instead of leaping to extremes.

3. Everyone can make a difference

This is, once more, where philanthropy comes into the equation. Since a lot of us aren’t parents or working with children, we can technically “opt out” of playing any part in the village raising and helping the next generation. Beyond taxation, those of us in the private sector aren’t technically obligated to advance society and help others. In my opinion, we all can and should try to make a difference anyway.

There are many ways we can get involved. We can volunteer with schools, youth clubs, become a big brother or big sister. We can volunteer with foster kids. There are organizations like C5 that work to instill leadership skills in youth that will be the 1st generation in their families to go to college. There are so many wonderful organizations that provide resources to youth and more importantly, adults as caring mentors to help them find their way.

If your past experiences have stimulated in you a passion for something, don’t abandon it. Find some way, however small, to integrate it into your life and personal journey.

4. It’s important to lead by example

I’ve adopted philanthropy in my personal life, and also realize how important it is in business. That’s why I make sure that my professional work stands up to my personal values. At Pacesetter, we pride ourselves in prioritizing families and getting involved in the community.  

Our program Associates Achieving Community Engagement introduces our team members to a variety of organizations in need. We host regular lunch and learns, hold many fundraisers and give our Associates paid days off to volunteer in the community. Whether it’s children who need a mentor, someone homeless who needs food or someone who is ill that needs a cure, it is important that we support the community around us.

Training to be a public defender opened my eyes to the needs of troubled youth and their families. This realization helped me to do my part both personally and professionally, even after switching careers. Perhaps there’s a cause that matters to you because of your education or your background. As you move through life, don’t forget these passions—do your part to pitch in. Your impact, however slight, could make an enormous difference somewhere, somehow. Set a great example, and others will follow suit.