Judge Debra Lambert, who has been chosen as one of EKU's Hall of Distinguished Alumni Award winners for 2019, humbly recognizes that many supportive people have helped and taught her.
"It was the least I could do to pass on a little of what I learned from those who helped me along the way," she told The Register.
As an undergraduate student at EKU, Lambert recalled the impact of Dr. Betty Powers, chair of the Department of Home Economics at the time.
"She really was a model for the concept I later heard called 'paying it forward' because she told us to remember to be similarly nice to those we would come across in our work," Lambert said.
Following this advice, serving others has been a hallmark of Lambert's law career. When she became a family court judge in 1999, she immediately noticed a disturbing trend.
"I saw way too many cases where substance abuse endangered children to the point where Court intervention was necessary," she said. "It was very frustrating to not be able to do more."
It was this frustration that drove Lambert to start the first drug court in that county, in which an addicted parent could pursue treatment and rehabilitation rather than serving jail time. She also helped establish a juvenile drug court to help young people who were falling into crime and truancy due to their addictions.
Lambert said she enjoyed the personal role she was able to take in these families and youths' lives.
"I was able to admire their successes each week, offer some small rewards occasionally, and help guide them back to sobriety," she said.
Children were usually returned to their families much sooner through the drug court program than through traditional prison time.
Lambert ventured beyond the courtroom for an in-school truancy diversion project, called "Whatever it Takes." She spent time at four middle schools weekly for more than six years, meeting with children and families.
"Our program, like the Family and Juvenile Drug Courts, tried to build on the strength of the student and celebrate success," she said. "The strength of that program was to have the school involvement, parental involvement and the judge all focused, at the same time, on whatever was needed to give that child the opportunity to succeed."
Lambert said this program was "the most fun I ever had as a family court judge." They would celebrate "graduation" with pizza parties, skating parties and prizes. One marker of its success was that none of these students ever ended up in court. Lambert hopes to one day develop a similar curriculum that other Judges could utilize in their local schools and help prevent truancy.
Learning the QPR (Question, Persuade and Refer) suicide prevention program has been another key role in Lambert's life. Seeing many people in distress and at their lowest point, including friends who had died by suicide, motivated Lambert to become a suicide prevention trainer through the QPR Institute. She has conducted many free trainings to prepare people to help those who may be considering suicide.
Lambert was sworn into the Kentucky Supreme Court in 2018. As the first woman ever inducted into the Kentucky Supreme Court from the 3rd District, she said, "You can blame my dad who wanted another boy. His perception of skill development having nothing to do with gender was pivotal for me."
"I don't think about being a pioneer in my field much until some father or mother makes the effort to introduce their daughters to me so we can talk about careers. I am honored to do so, of course," Lambert stated.
Humility and humor continue to be woven into Lambert's personality, as she prepares to receive the Hall of Distinguished Alumni Award this Homecoming weekend at EKU.
"I am very grateful that I was chosen for this award, though I am quite sure there are many others who should have gotten it before me," she said.