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December 31, 2003

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Publication Date: Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Lisa Sobrato Sonsini believes in sharing her good fortune with others Lisa Sobrato Sonsini believes in sharing her good fortune with others (December 31, 2003)

Jane Knoerle
Almanac Staff Writer

Lisa Sobrato Sonsini of Atherton is cutting back on her philanthropic and volunteer duties to spend more time with her family.

These days, "Mornings on the Meadow" at the Child and Family Institute, or "Mothers Together" at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, as well as board meetings, are part of her agenda.

One thing that won't change, she says, is her long-term commitment to Child Advocates of Santa Clara & San Mateo Counties.

Although Ms. Sonsini stepped down last summer after six years as a member and board president of Child Advocates, she's still "very involved" on the funds development committee, she says, and recently hosted a reunion of board members at her Atherton home.

During Ms. Sonsini's time in office, Child Advocates "kicked off a $1 million endowment and served a unprecedented number of children -- 1,038 in this last year alone," says JoAnn Pickering, Child Advocates' development director.

Child Advocates serves abused and neglected children, from infancy to age 18, in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. It trains volunteers who work with abused and neglected kids who are under court protection. Advocates serve as friends, taking a child out for social visits, as well as looking after the coordination of services so she or he doesn't get lost in the system.

While a social worker may deal with the cases of 25 to 30 children at a time, the typical advocate is there for one child.

Lisa Sonsini has been a court-appointed child advocate herself.

"I heard about Child Advocates 12 years ago when I was just starting out as a lawyer," says Ms. Sonsini, a graduate of Boalt Hall at UC Berkeley. "I didn't do it right away because I realized it would be a big commitment and that I couldn't let these kids down."

After about a year, still in her mid-20s, she became a child advocate for 12-year-old Rita, a foster child removed from her home because her mother suffered from mental illness. As Rita's advocate, Ms. Sonsini spent between 10 and 13 hours a month with her, both as a stable adult in her life and seeing to her best interests in court.

"We'd just do simple things, spend time together," she says.

When Rita was 15, the district attorney and Rita's social worker wanted to put her in a locked facility because they thought she had bipolar disorder, says Ms. Sonsini. "I knew Rita much better than any of the court officials or social workers, and I knew for sure Rita didn't have it!"

Through the years, she has helped keep Rita from falling through the cracks that exist in an overburdened foster care system. Today Rita is a 21-year-old mother who works part-time while attending junior college. She and Ms. Sonsini are still close. "I see her all the time," she says.

Lisa Sonsini grew up in a life of privilege in the same house in Atherton where her parents, Sue and John Sobrato, live today. By birth and marriage she is a member of two of Silicon Valley's most prominent families.

Her grandmother, the late Ann Sobrato, founded the family's commercial real estate empire. Lisa is board president of the Sobrato Family Foundation, which awarded more than $10 million in its first five years of operation. She is married to Matthew Sonsini, the son of famed Silicon Valley lawyer Larry Sonsini. Matthew works for the Palo Alto law firm of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, of which his father is chairman.

"My parents taught us to have responsibility," says Ms. Sonsini. "We all serve on lots of boards."

The Sobrato Family Foundation focuses on Silicon Valley charities. "Instead of giving program grants, we support general operating expenses, such as salaries," she says.

Now that the foundation is off the ground and running smoothly, her duties will be more on a strategic level, rather than administrative, she says.

Although she has been raised with "the best of everything" and traveled to Europe in grand style with her family, Ms. Sonsini says she gets just as much of a kick out of volunteering at wilderness camps sponsored by Today's Youth Matters.

She and her husband are also part of SV2 (Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund), an organization that describes itself as the "next generation dedicated to teaching its members how to have an impact in their community and become better philanthropists and givers." SV2 says its goal is to invest wealth created in Silicon Valley back into the community.

Dashing from "Tiny Trek" outings with the kids to board meetings makes for a busy schedule. "I can't live without my clipboard," she says. She also serves on the boards of the Silicon Valley Children's Fund and Northern California Grantmakers.

Her career as an attorney has been put aside for now. However, she says, in a few years "I could see myself doing legal stuff for child advocacy."

Lisa Sonsini says her community service will never be confined to the boardroom. "I actually enjoy being hands-on and working one-to-one. It's much easier to write a big check than get involved."

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