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Posted March 20, 2009

PILA Pilots Alternative Spring Break Program in N.C., Ky.

Students
Students David Smith, right, and John White work in Kentucky during spring break.

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Contact: Mary Wood

Students worked with legal aid clients and immersed themselves in social justice issues in Eastern Kentucky and Durham, N.C., during an alternative spring break program piloted by the Public Interest Law Association this month.

Seventeen law students participated in the program, which PILA president Rebecca Vallas hopes will become a new tradition at the Law School.

“Programs like this are truly a win-win, and ours was no exception,” Vallas said. “It matched up motivated and energetic law students hoping to devote their spring breaks to a good cause with two terrific — if understaffed and overstretched — legal aid organizations that need all the extra help they can get.”

Vallas and first-year law student Jesse Stewart wanted to give students another opportunity to do public service work and came up with the alternative spring break program.

“In the end, the students receive valuable exposure to new areas of law and even new parts of the country, such as rural Kentucky, and the organizations benefit from the law students' donation of their pro bono time,” Vallas said.

AppalReD, the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of Kentucky, based in Prestonsburg, hosted 11 students. The legal aid organization provides free legal help to those who can’t afford it otherwise.

Students spent their first day touring Harlan County, an area known for violent disputes between coal miners’ unions and coal mining companies in the 1930s and 1970s. It’s known also for its prevalence of black lung disease and poverty.

Later in the week, students performed intake interviews with women seeking divorces and wrote up the requisite petitions and affidavits. They also visited a senior center and assisted seniors in creating living wills and power of attorney documentation.

“I have never seen a part of the country like where we were,” said second-year law student Susan Edwards. “It was so rural — it was so different from any place that I’ve ever been. It was hard to see such a wonderful community that does have some poverty juxtaposed with other communities across the country. The disparities are striking and it’s challenging to grapple with.”

“Being able to put a face with the paperwork that you’re doing is awesome,” added first-year law student Veronica Bath, who helped plan the Kentucky trip and assisted a client with her divorce while there. “To hear her story and to feel like you’re in a position where you’re someone she wants to talk to about that was just really neat.”

Nicholson, Stuart

Peggy Nicholson, left, and Melanie Stuart participated in the alternative spring break program.

Second-year law student Dan Rosenthal was one of six students who travelled to Durham, N.C., to work for Advocates for Children’s Services (ACS), an organization that provides legal assistance on issues related to education in North Carolina.

Expecting a short training session before being thrust into client work, Rosenthal was surprised to find that the program took a more systemic look at the civil rights movement and its impact on education.

The students filed a brief with the North Carolina Court of Appeals in a case involving education and constitutional law, but also got hands-on  experience working on a case involving a student getting suspended from school.

“I thought it was a really interesting exercise in legal thinking — something that you wouldn’t typically get because you can’t really replicate that in a classroom. It really requires a hands-on approach,” he said.

The program at ACS included tours of areas in Durham and Greensboro that were affected by the civil rights movement, guest lecturers and interaction with clients.

Rosenthal said the volunteers were encouraged to think about how they can effect social change and what tools they can use to make a difference.

“Simply filing a brief as a lawyer is not the only tool you have at your disposal, and I think that that was one of the things they were trying to get across,” he said.

The organizing committee for the alternative spring break program wanted to keep costs down and were able to operate the program on a $2,000 budget, which they accomplished by having the students carpool and both organizations provide housing.

AppalReD hosted students in a two-bedroom house they own next door to their headquarters and students were paired up at the homes of ACS attorneys in North Carolina.

“It was awesome to see the enthusiasm for the trip. There was a lot of interest in the program even though it’s never been available before. People are looking for opportunities like this,” Stewart said.

• Reported by emily williams