For the Good of the Gulf: UNC Law Winter/Spring Break Pro Bono Project

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Every bit helps

In my first three days in New Orleans I have worked on two cases with the New Orleans Pro Bono Project. My group has been working on succession files, which means we have been helping clients resolve the estates of deceased family members. I think some people would think that isn’t much of an impact for three days of full-time work. It just doesn’t sound like much of a contribution for that amount of time. But the fact is that every little bit helps down here.
First, it helps the over-worked staff at the New Orleans Pro Bono Project. The Project usually has a staff of six, but is currently operating with only three people. This means that the Project is using half as many people as it would usually have to work on its existing caseload AND the enormous amount of work generated by Hurricane Katrina. If you think about it this way, it’s obvious that any little bit that law students can contribute definitely helps. Our minor contributions may give one of these staffers the chance to take on another case, or maybe eat out for lunch one day of the week, or spend a little more time with their families. We have to remember that these people who are dedicating their time and efforts to others have hurricane-related problems of their own. The hurricane didn’t discriminate between lawyers and non-lawyers or the pro bono staff and their clients. Don’t forget that while some of these attorneys and staff are at the office helping their clients, they have family living away from home because their own houses were destroyed. They are putting their recovery on hold to help their clients. If our week of work gives these staffers even one afternoon of free time to address some of their own problems, it is worth it.
Second, we have to remember that with many of these cases, we are working with people who have lost everything. While working on a file, I caught myself thinking that the few thousands of dollars one client would receive from our efforts really wasn’t much in the big picture. But then I realized that to someone who has lost it all, that much money may be the chance to feed the children, or start repairing a home, or get a head start to get back on her feet. The point is that you don’t have to help someone recover a small fortune to make a difference in a life. To someone who has little or nothing, any amount can be a small fortune.
Finally, we have to realize that you don’t have to roll through 100 cases to make a difference. Even getting through one case helps the client immensely. Getting through one case means that there is one less person who needs our help with their succession problem. And it means that the load on one person’s shoulders may just be a little bit lighter. All of us who have contacted clients have encountered people who were completely appreciate of our work on their case. To these clients, everything we have done makes a world of difference.
But working on one case doesn’t just help that particular client, it also helps the community as a whole. The New Orleans community is probably used to having thousands or tens of thousands of students descend on their city during Mardi Gras and spring break. Think of the impact it makes when they realize that this year, the majority of those students came not only to drink and party all day and night, but also to try to help a struggling city get back on its feet. On our first day in New Orleans, we attended a reception at a local law firm for all the law students who came down for this week of spring break. It was amazing to see what had to be about 200 law students crammed into a reception hall eager to start work on their projects. They came from dozens of different schools and were from every class year. And these 200 students were less than half of all the law students that came down this week alone. Yesterday we spoke to some volunteers with a group called Common Ground in the Lower Ninth Ward who had been working in New Orleans for months. When the residents of this area see that so many people are still coming down here to help months after the storm, it has to at least let them know that not everyone has forgotten about them.
The point of all this is that if you can get involved with helping the victims of Hurricane Katrina both here and throughout the gulf area in any way, you should do it. Send money, volunteer some time, come down to the area to witness the impact and bolster the economy. But at the least, keep talking about it. Keep the victims and devastation in your minds and keep them as a subject of your conversations. If you see a news article about it, read the article. Awareness of what happened here is the first step in helping the area recover. Anything you can do for this area will certainly go a long way.


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