Powell Fellow Woolard Pursues Dream of Helping Children

December 21, 2007

For most people there's not an obvious connection between creative writing and child advocacy. But third-year law student Amy Woolard, 2007 recipient of the Law School's Powell Fellowship in Legal Services, made the connection when the desire to help troubled children turned from talk to action. Woolard's fellowship will allow her to work for the Legal Aid Justice Center's JustChildren program in Richmond and Petersburg, advocating on behalf of youths in the educational, foster care, and juvenile justice systems.

Given each year to a graduating student pursuing a public service career, the Powell Fellowship provides a $35,000 salary for one year, with the expectation of renewal the second year, allowing recipients to work at no cost to a partner public-interest organization. Recipients' loan payments are paid for the duration of the fellowship by the Law School's Virginia Loan Forgiveness Program.

Woolard was thrilled when she got the news on receiving the fellowship. "It seemed impossible," she said. "You design your dream job and then you get it! In a situation where these jobs are so few and far between it's amazing to be doing the exact thing that you want to be doing."

Woolard's lifelong love of writing paved a circuitous path toward her legal career. After earning her undergraduate degree in English in 1994 from the University of Virginia, Woolard took her creative talent to the University of Iowa's famed Writer's Workshop, where she earned an M.F.A. in poetry writing. Her return to Charlottesville following graduation brought her to a management position in a local restaurant for several years, but restlessness sent her to California.

"I moved to San Francisco just to do something new," Woolard said, adding, "I went out there with just $500, my dog, and a car." It was 1998 and she was in the right place at the right time because the dot-com era was booming.

As Woolard began applying for jobs, she said, "They saw 'writer' on my resume and gave me a desk, things to write — you can do really well and it's comfortable out there." But less than two years later the bubble burst. "The whole thing crashed and all the jobs went away," she said.

Returning to Richmond, Woolard began her studies at the Adcenter, part of Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Mass Communications, where she earned a Master's in communications as a copy writer. "It planted the seed for how I ended up going to law school," Woolard said, adding, "All along I've had such a love of language, how it can convince people, how it can stir people, to move people to do and think incredible things."

Woolard then returned once more to Charlottesville and began work in the news room of SNL Financial, a Charlottesville-based business specializing in financial information and industry research for investors worldwide. It was "a bunch of young kids in a big open room together, writing news stories and talking about current events."

The camaraderie sparked long-dormant issues in Woolard's mind. "I began to see how much time I spent thinking about all the problems in the world and how little time I spent actually doing something about it," she said. "Part of me kept toying with the idea of going to law school, but I kept thinking, 'I can't go back to school again, can I?'" So, with the sort of confidence that comes to those who try and succeed, Woolard tossed her future into a single law school application and won again.

While she found the first year at the Law School rigorous, Woolard said her previous experience with postgraduate education allowed her to stay focused. Throughout, Woolard has been actively involved in the Public Interest Law Association, CARE (Child Advocacy, Research and Education), the Domestic Violence Project, and the Conference on Public Service and the Law.

Before she applied for her first summer law job, Woolard sought the advice of her older sister Jennifer, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University, whose own career has involved work with juvenile justice and family issues. Her sister steered Woolard to JustChildren, a program based in the Legal Aid Justice Center's Charlottesville office.

That summer's work changed her direction completely. "I went into the Child Advocacy Clinic right after that," Woolard said. "All the decisions I made regarding law school from then on were focused on the goal of working with kids."

She spent her second summer clerking for the District of Columbia's Juvenile Trial Division of the Public Defender Service.

"I really wanted to see the other end of the 'schoolhouse-to-jailhouse' experience. I wanted to know what these kids thought about how they got there and to look for ways to get them out and back to the other side." Woolard added, "Once they're in, a lot of them are just gone for good."

This fall, when she began to write her application for the Powell Fellowship, Woolard brought her writing experience into play. "There are so few fellowships available and the competition is stiff," she said. "You have to find a way to distinguish yourself; you have to steer away from clichés, use the detail that creative writers use in original works and make that work for you."

Named for former Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., the Powell Fellowship requires proposed projects to provide legal services to those who can't afford them. Woolard described her project with JustChildren: "I definitely have certain issues that I want to focus on. Specifically, I'm interested in education issues for kids at risk of going into the delinquency system."

JustChildren Legal Director Andy Block, who co-teaches the Child Advocacy Clinic, sponsored Woolard's project. He suggested she could work through their Petersburg and Richmond offices because there was a great need for child advocacy education in the counties surrounding Richmond.

"What I really love about JustChildren and the Legal Aid Justice Center is their comprehensive approach to community change," Woolard explained. "It's investing in the community and helping parents become their own advocate that benefits the community as a whole."

Woolard sees a place for her creative writing energies as well. "Creative writing tells you to keep looking at things, and if something isn't working, to look at it from another angle." Woolard also hopes to conduct writing workshops for kids in foster homes and detention centers as an ancillary project.

Pursuing a law degree hasn't stopped Woolard's own literary output. But she admits it has slowed her down. "I have some poems out in circulation," Woolard said, "But with law school it's so tough not only to keep writing but to do all the administrative work of sending poems out as well." Woolard has had several of her poems published in literary magazines and she has written several book reviews for Iris, the national women's magazine of the University of Virginia's Women's Center.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

News Highlights