Our Shared Engagement Stories: The Legal Assistance Center
Having stepped through the metal security gates of the Grand Rapids District Court Building, Maricella Rodriguez, a GVSU senior and Criminal Justice major, takes the elevator to the fifth floor, home of the Legal Assistance Center (LAC). When she arrives for her four-hour shift, patrons are already lined up at the counter, waiting for help with their cases.
For at least five years, GVSU students have been providing volunteer staffing for the center. With only one full-time and two part-time program staff, the Legal Assistance Center depends on volunteers to serve 17,000 people a year, often 100 a day.
The Legal Assistance Center provides support to many who are self-represented because they can't afford attorneys. Student volunteers work directly with patrons on family law issues, helping translate their interests into an objective, and troubleshooting referrals for legal and other problems.
"We crafted our volunteer process around an academic calendar-January, May and September," says Executive Director Deborah Hughes. Students apply, interview, and-if selected-participate in workshop style training, followed by 20 hours of on-the-job training. Even once the training is complete, students keep learning. Deborah and GVSU grad Charlie Campbell, paralegal at the center, provide ongoing guidance. Deborah gives GVSU students high marks, describing them as "consistently bright, thoughtful, committed, and willing to learn."
GVSU students benefit by seeing the law in action, as classroom learning comes to life in the legal concerns of ordinary people. Maricella describes this classroom/community connection: "When I first started, I was enrolled in a civil litigation course. Because of my coursework, I thought I'd be prepared. I knew the terminology and understood the forms. But you don't really know how to do it until you experience it." She is now taking family law, and she's "flying though it" because of her experience at the center. "I'm more engaged in the class and have a lot more to say."
Both GVSU and the LAC benefit from the partnership in other ways, too. Ruth Stevens, Criminal Justice Assistant Professor and Legal Studies Coordinator, who champions the center's volunteer opportunities with her students, has also helped the organization refine their intake forms and computerize and employ data for use in grant proposals. The Johnson Center for Philanthropy has provided board training and strategic planning. GVSU research opportunities with the center include a current project with Dr. Tina Yalda, who is assessing perceptions and impact of the LAC. Dr. Sal Alaimo's students have practiced strategic positioning by working with the organization. Each of these collaborative layers brings opportunities for teaching, learning, and research to GVSU and adds to the organization's creditability in the legal field, according to Deborah.
She articulates the purpose of the Legal Assistance Center. "We believe justice is a process and everyone should have an opportunity to participate and tell their story toward the outcome they hope for. We are here to assist our patrons to be better informed, better prepared, and better able to tell their story."
Maricella takes her place confidently at the counter, assisting a patron to better tell his story. She plans to apply to law school and practice family law in West Michigan. She asserts, "I know what I want to do, and I'm on the path to doing it."