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Posted March 18, 2010

Students Help Indigent in Five Cities Through Alternative Spring Break Program

Alternative Spring Break Group in Kentucky
Students worked for a legal aid organization in Prestonsburg, Ky., during their spring break last week.
 
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Contact: Mary Wood

Several students spent spring break helping low-income clients in cities as far away as New Orleans as part of the Public Interest Law Association’s Alternative Spring Break program.

Now in its second year, the program allowed 34 students to donate nearly 1,300 pro bono hours on behalf of clients in New Orleans, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Richmond, Va., as well as Charlottesville.

“The motivation behind it was really to afford more students more opportunities to get involved in public service-type law,” said PILA alternative spring break coordinator Jesse Stewart, a second-year law student who also helped plan the event last year. “This year we expanded to five trips. Next year, based on the interest we had this year, we are hoping to expand even more.”

Students who participated donated $100, which primarily went to travel expenses, but also covered some lodging and food. Many participants stayed with students attending law schools close to their destination.

Umair in Haiti
Third-year law student Umair Javed, right, helped build shelters in Haiti.

Helping Haiti

One law student journeyed far from home during spring break to help Haitians in need.

Third-year law student Umair Javed, a firefighter and EMT at the Charlottesville-area Stony Point Volunteer Fire Company and a 2007 graduate of the University of Virginia, said he knew he wanted to help after an earthquake devastated Haiti. He volunteered for a week with Helping Hand, a global humanitarian relief and development organization.

Umair“The level of devastation down there was almost overwhelming – entire buildings turned to rubble,” Javed said. “There were areas where you could still smell bodies under the rubble, and there’s just no heavy equipment to get them out so there’s really nothing that could be done.”

Javed and other volunteers ran a mobile medical clinic.

“We would set up in a different refugee camp every day and we’d see about 150 to 200 people in one day, so it was very busy.”

Javed helped supply medications to Haitians in need, including antibiotics, worms and scabies medications, and multivitamins to children who were undernourished.

“We’d have to ration them because if we gave them too much they would go on the street and sell it. So we’d give them a week’s supply at a time and we would return in a week and see them again.”

Javed also got involved in building shelters in an area just outside Port-au-Prince. One 20-by-20 foot building he worked on is now being used as a school that will hold five classrooms.

“It’s going to be very crowded.”

Javed said he also learned what kinds of issues arise in the wake of a disaster.

The World Bank asked organizations not to build shelters until building codes were established. Some organizations, for example, had built shelters out of plywood, which might quickly mold during the upcoming rainy season.

The World Bank “wanted to take the time to gather the statistics and then develop codes to regulate the shelters,” he said.

But relief organizations on the ground saw the conditions Haitians were experiencing.

“They just couldn’t sit back and wait for codes to be developed,” he said. “I learned that while it’s a good idea to have the codes, you really can’t ignore the problem that’s down there.”

Javed said he saw no evidence of looting, despite some State Department reports to the contrary.

“It was also just an amazing experience to see countries from all over the world and from all nationalities really helping each other — and the people of Haiti helping each other.”

Javed said he plans to return to Haiti soon. He has been working on getting funding to build a mobile clinic unit more sophisticated than the ones run out of the back of SUVs while he was there. He has been working with fellow firefighters who have experience designing such units.

“We’ve partnered with some organizations on the ground that are willing to actually run it on a day-to-day basis if we get it to them.”

(Below, Javed's mobile clinic in Haiti)

mobile clinic

Second-year law student and trip co-captain Karla Soloria spent her spring break working with AppalReD, the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of Kentucky, based in Prestonsburg, where she volunteered last year.

“A lot of times people think legal aid and they think urban centers and serving that poverty sector, but there’s really high poverty in Appalachia, so it was great to see legal aid in that environment,” Soloria said.

Soloria
 
Karla Soloria worked in Kentucky.

Soloria and other students helped indigent senior citizens draft wills and living wills, assisted in pro se divorces, researched child custody issues and created a brochure for parents of special needs children on how to prepare for their long-term care if needed.

“We had a unique opportunity that we didn’t have last year, which was to work with a private attorney who had to interview flood victims for a class action he was filing,” Soloria said. “The theory behind the case was that a coal company had failed — in violation of state statutes — to reclaim land that they had strip mined, which exacerbated flooding downhill and a lot of people lost their homes.”

Soloria said she and her teammates, who were all first-year law students, enjoyed being able to interact with clients early in their legal careers.

“Working in the world of legal aid, there’s just more client interaction than you would get in the private sector working for a firm or otherwise,” she said, adding that the region also offered many participants a chance to experience a new culture.

Alternative Spring Break Group in North Carolina
 
Melanie Stuart, sitting far right, was a co-captain in Raleigh.

Second-year law student and trip co-captain Melanie Stuart spent her second consecutive spring break in Raleigh, N.C., working with Advocates for Children’s Services (ACS), a project of Legal Aid of North Carolina.

“I enjoyed seeing the passion for the work they do and the opportunity to do some substantive legal work,” she said.

In her work for ACS she researched the duty of the public school system to educate students detained in youth or adult correctional facilities.

At the North Carolina Justice Center, she and teammates worked on issues ranging from migrant worker rights to bankruptcy motions to school busing.

“The chance to work on bankruptcy, which I knew nothing about, and sort of struggle through that in a real-world environment for an actual case was an exciting opportunity and a productive way to spend my break,” she said.

Students also worked for Fair Child Initiative, researching victims’ compensation services and how to implement them in North Carolina, as well as capital punishment defense.

“They surveyed people in the community where there was a recent murder and a death penalty case pending in that county, to see what kind of awareness they had of the trial as part of a motion for a change of venue.”

Stuart, who hopes to work in immigration law in the public sector after law school, said the trip was a productive break from school.

“It was a really great opportunity to reaffirm my commitment to public interest work and also the chance to try a range of different legal work,” she said.

Alternative Spring Break Group in New Orleans
 
Second-year law student Ben Cooper worked in New Orleans. More than 40 student volunteers from six different schools helped research for attorneys working with the Orleans Public Defenders.

Students who traveled to Richmond worked at the attorney general’s office, Jesse Stewart said, and the eight students who drove to New Orleans worked with Orleans Public Defenders there.

Students who stayed in Charlottesville worked for the Charlottesville-Albemarle Public Defender’s office, the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society and the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC).

Law School alum and LAJC attorney Phil Storey ’09 supervised the work of students who compiled data on whether language services were properly provided to non-English-speaking clients in local courts. Fifteen students contributed to the project, four of whom worked through the alternative spring break program.

“The students monitored hundreds of proceedings, more than 40 of which presented language-access issues, for which the students completed a survey form and took notes,” Storey said. “The results will help us understand what the strengths and weaknesses are of the local courts' practices with regard to in-court language services. That could form the basis for any number of follow-up efforts to help limited-English-proficient clients in their interactions with the courts.”