Moved by Hometown Tragedy, Pro Bono Award Winner Pays It Forward

Kolleen Gladden ’21 Shares Her Inspiration, Advice for Public Service
Kolleen Gladden

“Follow your interest when looking for pro bono work; there is something out there for everyone,” Kolleen Gladden said. Photo by Jack Looney

June 11, 2021

After a tornado devastated her hometown of Joplin, Missouri, when she was in her teens, Kolleen Gladden ’21 vowed to prioritize her family and friends, and never take them for granted.

“I was at a family’s house just the week before, and the mother was telling me how she wished she could spend more time with her son before he left for college,” she said. “Tragically, he was killed by the storm just minutes after his high school graduation. That was a defining moment for me.”

The tragedy sparked Gladden’s interest in helping the less fortunate. She graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law in May as this year’s recipient of the school’s Pro Bono Award, tallying over 316 hours of service in the past three years. The award recognizes the graduate who best demonstrates an “extraordinary commitment to pro bono service.”

After the tornado, Gladden and her father partnered with local churches and organizations to raise funds that would support affected families months after government funding would dry up.

“This project raised $100,000 and carried 100 families through the darkest time of their lives,” she said. “Being a part of that process was life-changing.”

Gladden carried those interests with her to law school after graduating from Pittsburg State University. While at UVA Law, in addition to volunteering her time for numerous causes, Gladden was a research assistant to Professor Rachel Harmon and lecturer Gerard Robinson, design and technology development editor for the Virginia Journal of International Law, assistant production editor for the Virginia Tax Review, a Law and Public Service Fellow, recipient of the Claire Corcoran Award and a participant in the Litigation and Housing Law Clinic. She was also vice president of community for the Law Christian Fellowship, graphic designer for The Libel Show, social media chair for Amici Signatae Linguae and photographer for the Virginia Law Weekly.

Gladden talked to UVA Law about what inspired her to volunteer, and shared her most rewarding experience and her advice for students.

Why were you interested in volunteering and what kinds of work led you to contribute so many hours?

I came to appreciate the value of volunteering more fully when I turned 15 and my hometown of Joplin was destroyed by a tornado. In the aftermath of that catastrophe, volunteers came from all over the country and world to help, some from as far away as Japan. I was amazed that so many people, many of whom had never even heard of Joplin [before the disaster], wanted to help put a rural town back together piece by piece, and it inspired me. Being able to study at UVA is a huge privilege, and lawyers (and law students) are equipped with a skillset that allows us to serve communities in such profound ways. I want to use the tools I’ve been given to work alongside others who have not been afforded those same opportunities.

Among others, I have had the chance to work for civil liberties organizations, grassroots social justice movements, an organization advocating against animal testing, a federal public defender’s office, and the Policy and Strategy Section of the Department of Justice. It’s an amazing way to get exposure to various fields, and I love how pro bono work can give you a glimpse into so many different areas of legal work.

What’s been the most rewarding part of doing pro bono work?

Client interaction is the best thing, hands down. Working with people brings me such joy. I love problem-solving as a team, and I have learned so much from clients. And even if you are unable to help a particular client with their legal issue, you can always, always listen to them. I have had clients say that having someone listen to them and validate their experience was as important (or more important) to them than a particular legal outcome. You may very well be the first person a client details their full experience to, and it is a privilege to be able to make them feel heard and understood.

Tell us more about a particular project that you learned a lot from.

This year, I have been working with several attorneys who want to start a legal aid clinic. It is still in the beginning stages, so I do not want to say too much, but I believe the organization would be able to aid in closing the massive gap in legal aid services in its service area. It has been truly fascinating to see the process of starting an organization from the ground up. I have really enjoyed the brainstorming, putting together moving parts and seeing the different structural models for legal aid offices.

What advice do you have for students interested in pro bono?

Follow your interest when looking for pro bono work; there is something out there for everyone. GoodWorks [the Pro Bono Program’s online system for creating, tracking and evaluating pro bono projects] is a great start, but if nothing is calling your name, don’t be afraid to branch out and find something that does. I found two of my favorite pro bono projects through the Equal Justice Works Conference. Definitely reach out to organizations that interest you and see if you can work with them. Many places are very receptive to law student volunteers. When it comes to managing your time, one thing that is key is knowing when you’ve hit a wall and need to ask your supervisor for direction. Once you find that balance, you will be able to maximize your efficiency as a volunteer.

What’s next for you?

I will be moving to New York City to be a Robert F. Kennedy ’51 Public Service Fellow for Housing Works, an organization that is working to end the twin crises of AIDS and homelessness. Their legal team is phenomenal, and I am overjoyed to be joining them.

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