Yes, U.S. District Court Judge Jay C. Zainey got mad, but even though “getting even” is thought to be infused in an attorney’s DNA, he chose not to “get even.”
Rather, when Zainey got a less-than-gracious response from his church about meeting the religious education needs of his special needs son Andrew, Zainey and his wife Joy decided to channel their hurt in a way that would help not only their son, who has severe autism, but eventually hundreds of other “special children” across the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
“I guess I felt everyone’s pain,” said Zainey, who will be honored Nov. 20 by the Catholic Foundation with the St. John Paul II Award at the foundation’s annual dinner for his service to individuals with special needs, the homeless and immigrant children.
The St. John Paul II Award, first given in 1996, recognizes the stewardship exhibited by a Catholic layperson of high moral character and exemplary values, who has rendered unselfish volunteer service to the institutions and programs of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
Called to take action
The Zaineys’ decision to establish God’s Special Children came in the wake of personal disappointment. A friend of the Zaineys, a special education expert, had been interested in teaching a nursery Bible school for children with developmental disabilities, but that proposal was nixed for fear of liability.
“For a year, Joy and I maintained our faith, but we did our share of complaining – not publicly, but to each other,” Zainey said. “Then we finally said, ‘Let’s quit complaining and do something about it. We wanted to do whatever it would take to pray together.”
In 2004, the Zaineys met a Redemptorist priest who was willing to celebrate a regular monthly Mass for special needs children, and the group was born. Sixty-five people attended the first Mass, and the group “grew by word of mouth” and through the efforts of Joy Zainey to keep in touch with families by phone.
“Some people we contacted were very disillusioned because they had bad experiences, but they decided to give it a try, and the Mass kept growing and growing. One couple who came I knew hadn’t been to Mass in 17 years.”
In the last several years, the monthly Mass has moved to St. Francis Xavier Church in Metairie at the invitation of the Zaineys’ pastor, Msgr. Andrew Taormina. Father Mike Mitchell, pastor of Our Lady of Divine Providence Parish, serves as the regular celebrant.
Social justice outreach
In addition to his work with special needs children, Zainey has organized attorneys locally and throughout the country to offer legal assistance to people in homeless shelters and also to help immigrant children with legal issues.
Zainey attended St. Catherine of Siena School and Jesuit High School, and he said his father Jay, a musician who still plays the saxophone at age 91, instilled in him at an early age a desire to serve others.
“Engaging and serving other people was what it was all about,” Zainey said. “We learned that from my mom and dad. My dad quit law school when I was born because he had to raise a family. He was always sacrificing. He sold life insurance and he had his band and his music.”
Big heart for the homeless
Zainey’s involvement with the homeless began when he several other judges began walking to Ozanam Inn on Camp Street to serve food.
“That was a nice thing, but we felt as lawyers we should do more,” Zainey said.
That program of legal assistance to the homeless – Homeless Experience Legal Protection (H.E.L.P.) – has spread to 28 cities. More than 450 local attorneys are involved in the project, which helps provide notarial services and legal identification cards.
“A person cannot spend a night in a homeless shelter or cash a Social Security check without an ID card,” Zainey said. “Sometimes it takes 30 days for a person to replace an ID card if it’s lost. We’ve had some great success stories. People who have been homeless for many years are now off the streets because one lawyer gave up two hours of time.”
Tireless legal advocate
Zainey also works with Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans to expedite a process for immigrant children, who may be endangered, to remain in the U.S.
In addition to his charitable work, Zainey, who was appointed to the federal bench in 2002 by President George W. Bush, serves on a judicial code of conduct committee that renders ethics opinions to federal judges nationally. He also speaks to incoming Social Security administrative law judges about judicial demeanor and ethics.
Zainey initiated the development of a homeless court in New Orleans and a veterans court in Jefferson Parish.
Zainey cofounded with Mark Surprenant a group called Solace, which helps fill emergency needs for members of the legal community. The group was established when Surprenant’s wife Monica suffered an aneurysm, and the legal community rallied to help provide meals and transportation for the family. Solace has nearly 9,000 members in 18 states and Puerto Rico.
Monica Surprenant, who has a deep devotion to Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, has fully recovered.
“I call that Monica’s miracle,” Zainey said.
Zainey’s ultimate dream is the development of St. Andrew’s Village, a faith-based, long-term living community for adults with disabilities. Zainey serves as president of its board of directors.
Zainey and his wife have been married for 37 years and they have three children – Margaret Zainey Roux (and her husband Tre), Jay Christopher Zainey Jr. and Andrew – and two grandsons.
“I’m overwhelmed by the award,” Zainey said. “So many people are more deserving. This is a wonderful thing, but why should you be rewarded on Earth for doing what you’re supposed to be doing?”
LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri will be the featured dinner speaker.
Past recipients of St. John Paul II Award
1996: Joseph A. Childress
1997: Frank H. Walk
1998: Hon. Lindy Boggs
1999: Juliet Maquar
2000: Alden J. Laborde
2001: Jane & Paul Nalty
2002: Elmo J. Cerise, M.D.
2003: Blanche & Dr. Norman Francis
2004: Anne Milling
2005: Mary Jane & John Becker
2007: Mary Ann Valentino
2008: Michael O. Read
2009: Betty Lauricella
2010: Deacon Everett J. Williams
2011: Leon J. Reymond Jr.
2012: Jack A. Andonie, M.D.
2013: John P. Laborde
The Catholic Foundation