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Working in the Chattanooga Community

In 2004, I was volunteering for two organizations that provide disadvantaged individuals access to legal services, Legal Aid of East Tennessee (legal services for the poor) and Chattanooga Cares (services to those who are HIV positive). I learned about the work of a third organization, The Chattanooga Community Kitchen, a freestanding social service agency that provides aid to the homeless. I met with the director and several case managers to determine whether their organization provided any type of organized access to legal counsel. They did not. I offered my services.

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The Community Kitchen’s clientele is homeless individuals and families. The services the organization provides include transitional housing, employment, job training, and help for victims of domestic violence. They also work with other agencies to provide health care, substance abuse treatment, and mental health services. Yet Community Kitchen’s clients also needed access to legal services for a variety of problems related to domestic violence, mental illness, substance abuse, and criminal charges, among others. Many, due to their impairments or other situations, could not be counted on to come to an office at a specified time.

I began meeting with individuals, couples, and sometimes parents and children at The Community Kitchen every Friday afternoon, staying for as long as it took to talk to everyone there who needed to consult a lawyer. This usually took an hour or two. I soon realized that many of these individuals could qualify for assistance at Legal Aid of East Tennessee. I set up a referral system with Legal Aid (I was already volunteering there and later joined its Pro Bono Committee), which gave me more time to work with clients with less access to justice.

Since 2004, I have met with hundreds of individuals and spent hundreds of hours helping them resolve their criminal, domestic, financial, and disability issues on a pro bono basis. Many of these individuals are severely mentally ill and/or potentially violent. Many come to the homeless shelter after serving time in prison or in a mental institution. My years of service were recently recognized when I received the Pro Bono Excellence Award on May 20, 2010, and again in 2012, from Legal Aid of East Tennessee. My service in this capacity has led me to broaden my community involvement and I now have served on the Board of Directors for Hospice of Chattanooga (Chair of Governance Committee, Secretary of Executive Committee), and also have served on the Pro Bono Committee for Legal Aid of East Tennessee.

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