Pro bono program to help area homeless becomes reality at Penn State Law

Third-year Penn State Law student Emily Ward plans for a career in public interest law and she’s off to a good start by getting a legal intake program at a nearby homeless shelter up and running.

Ward’s interests in juvenile law and poverty law led her to discussions with Senior Associate Dean Gary Gildin, director of the Center for Public Interest Law and Advocacy, during which she learned about the idea of developing a program with the Bethesda Mission to address legal issues faced by guests of the shelter.

In addition to providing food and shelter, the Bethesda Mission offers several programs to help disadvantaged individuals in the Harrisburg area move toward a healthier and more stable lifestyle. With mission staff addressing the most pressing issues like obtaining medical treatment and health insurance, little time is left to explore legal options.

Building on research and draft materials done by former students Heather Hoechst, 2012 graduate, and Maren Miller Bam, 2013 graduate, Ward brought the concept to fruition by completing the volunteer manual, recruiting volunteers, and conducting student training sessions. The 33-page manual includes interviewing techniques, forms and resources available to qualifying mission guests.

On the first Thursday of each month, first-year law student volunteers visit the mission to interview individuals and gather information about the guest’s situation to determine what, if any, legal action should be pursued. After the initial intake interview, the student volunteers meet with a pro bono attorney, discuss the guest’s options, and decide on the best course of action. If the guest has a potential legal issue, he or she is then referred to a lawyer for further screening.

Ward said she has enjoyed seeing the program grow since its first session in October. “Although still in its infancy, the goal is to work on building a medical-legal partnership with the mission’s medical clinic run by Penn State Hershey medical students. I’d love to see the entire clinic come together because it involves such collaboration,” said Ward. “We went from an idea this summer, to seeing that idea come to life with our first legal intake program. It’s an amazing thing to see.”

Sandy Ballard, pro bono coordinator for the Dauphin County Bar Association; Nick Matash, managing attorney at MidPenn Legal Services; and Chuck Wingate, executive director of the Bethesda Mission; have been instrumental in the success of the program. “Without the collaboration of everyone, the intake program would have never gotten off the ground. I am extremely grateful for their insight and help,” Ward said.

The legal intake program gives preference to first-year students so they can gain valuable hands-on experience interacting with clients during their first semester of law school. This year, 75 percent of the first-year law students in Carlisle took advantage of this opportunity. “The students’ overwhelmingly positive reaction to the experience is a striking example of how attorneys themselves greatly benefit from providing pro bono services to the under-represented,” said Gildin. “Hopefully the experience will inspire these students to make pro bono work a valued part of their professional lives.”

First-year student volunteer David Talmage said he came to Penn State Law because of the focus on experiential learning and clinical work. Talmage, who earned a master’s of education in school counseling from the University of Virginia, has had a great experience combining his counseling and legal knowledge.

“My favorite part of the work is getting to actually apply some of the principles taught in class to the real world,” said Talmage. “It’s refreshing to have a change of setting and actually meet the people whose lives I hope to affect with the skills I gain here.”

As for the alumni who championed the intake program in its earliest stages, they continue to pursue their passion for the public interest after graduation. Hoechst now serves as a staff attorney for Women Against Abuse, Inc. in Philadelphia, Pa. Miller Bam works as directing attorney of the Social Security Advocacy Project at the Seattle Community Law Center in Seattle, Wash.

Last Updated April 09, 2014