Darien District 61 Educational Foundation Honors Lauren Kaeseberg with its 2016 “Great Starts in District 61” Recognition
The Darien District 61 Educational Foundation is proud to announce this year’s recipient of its “Great Starts in District 61” recognition award, Ms. Lauren Kaeseberg. “It’s great to reconnect with former students ” says Foundation Chair Barbara Finnegan, “and to hear how much they treasured their time in District 61.” Kaeseberg says her time at Eisenhower Junior High School (EJH) was the “most influential two years of (her) educational career.” Kaeseberg recalls that EJH was “where I really gained the confidence to be myself and where I first learned how to effectively use my voice (literally and figuratively!) Currently she is legal director for the Chicago office of the Illinois Innocence Project.
Kaeseberg attended seventh and eighth grade at EJH after moving into the district. There she found fellow students who she considers “old friends” today. She also found inspiration and support. Among many activities, she treasures the time spent as a member of the student council and the choir.
She also fondly recounts her time serving in student government. She credits her time on the student council with “providing innumerable opportunities to learn leadership skills, advocacy and public service that really planted a seed for me. The day-to-day functioning of being on the board of the student council taught me so much and enabled me to find my love for giving back and being invested in my community.”
Undoubtedly, in her job with the Illinois Innocence Project (IIP), Kaeseberg “gives back” in a big way. As part of the IIP team, she represents individuals in Illinois prisons who maintain that they are innocent of the crimes for which they are convicted and imprisoned. In 2015, two of her clients were exonerated and released after serving 29 and 21 years in prison, respectively. This past January, Kaeseberg was honored to accompany another client as he walked free after 18 years in prison.
It was Kaeseberg’s involvement in EJH’s choir program that, in part, helped her develop the confidence she uses on behalf of her legal clients. She is proud to have been a member of the EJH choir when it was selected to perform at the 1996 Illinois ACDA (American Choir Directors Association) Fall Meeting, at Walt Disney World and in the Chicago production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat starring Donny Osmond. The production tapped local school choirs to participate in the performances. In addition to the exhilaration of being a part of that incredible experience, the exposure helped her to grow and gain confidence being “on stage.”
Kaeseberg credits Judy Hanson, former EJH choir director, and Dean Rodkin, former EJH social studies teacher, as two of the top five teachers/professors she’s ever had. In fact, she says “they would be at the very top (of the list). They provided experiences and opportunities that allowed us to discover, for ourselves, our own capabilities and gave us the confidence to go out in the world and discover new passions. More than teachers, they were adults who believed in us and pushed us to be young adults who saw the future as bright and exciting.”
And that’s the philosophy Kaeseberg wants to pass on to the current students of District 61—a willingness to “try new things.” She counsels that “Primary schooling is a ‘blip’ in your life that will go by quickly–squeeze every morsel of every opportunity that comes your way, because you never know what you’ll enjoy doing or where you will find passion.” She adds, “When someone tells you that you are good at something, believe them. Work hard at getting even better.” And lastly, no matter how overwhelming school may be socially and academically, it’s important to “trust yourself and believe in yourself.”
Kaeseberg didn’t initially set off to be a lawyer. After graduating from DePaul University with a degree in secondary education, she taught high school in Chicago. It was during this time that she met an attorney who worked with then-Gov. George Ryan examining the death penalty system in Illinois. She became keenly aware of the reality of innocent people on death row in the state. It was after meeting Gov. Ryan and Madison Hobley, a man who would be exonerated from death row, that she knew she wanted to go to law school.
She attended Cardoza School of Law in New York City, birthplace of the Innocence Project, and was a member of the first class of “Public Service Scholars.” While a student, she interned with an organization helping victims of human trafficking and participated in the Innocence Project clinic, eventually becoming a teaching assistant. Her work helped exonerate and release innocent people in Illinois and Texas, and a death row inmate in Mississippi. She also continued to work with some of the former prisoners after their release.
After returning to Illinois, she worked for a small criminal defense firm, but left when she was asked to join the defense team of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. She participated in his first and second trials and helped represent him at his sentencing hearing. Kaeseberg was then appointed to his appeal.
Kaeseberg joined the Illinois Innocence Project in May 2013 as a staff attorney. In addition to her current role as legal director, she is an adjunct professor of law at Northern Illinois University College of Law, where she oversees the externship program.
When not at work, Kaeseberg is kept busy with her 3 ½-year-old son. She’s an avid reader and has recently discovered genealogy, tracing her family’s roots back to the Revolutionary War and Plymouth colony. She’s now embarked on tracing her partner’s genealogy back through his family’s roots in Mississippi and South Carolina in the era of slavery.
The Darien District 61 Educational Foundation is honored to recognize Lauren Kaeseberg as the 2016 Great Starts in District 61 honoree and the exciting path she’s taken since moving on from District 61 schools. We look forward to even more success as she pursues justice for others through the Illinois Innocence Project.