Although abuse and neglect sometimes force the removal of some Baltimore City children from their families, the MSBA Young Lawyers Section (YLS), partnering with the MSBA Public Awareness Committee (PAC), found a way to help soften the transition for these young people through its “Extreme Office Makeover” project, launched in February 2011, wherein YLS volunteers brought a much-needed “facelift” to the Children’s Visitation Rooms at the Baltimore City offices of the Maryland Department of Social Services (DSS). And now, recognizing YLS’s hard work and continuing commitment to public service, the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Young Lawyers Division and ABA Fund for Justice and Education have awarded YLS a $900 2011 Subgrant to continue the project.
Young Lawyers Section volunteers (from left) Courtney Duke Foster, Lisa Hall Johnson and Regine Francois assemble furniture as part of the “Extreme Office Makeover” project.
“The ABA grant is a testament to the success of the Young Lawyers’ Section’s ‘One Bar, One Community’ project, organized by YLS Public Service Committee Co-Chairs Gwendolyn Tate and Michael Siri, which unites young lawyers throughout the state who have a desire to contribute to their community,” says Erek Barron, 2011-2012 Chair of the Young Lawyers Section.
The DSS Children’s Visitation Rooms are used as visitation and processing sites for children who have been removed from their homes for various reasons, such as parental abuse or neglect. On February 26, 2011, more than 40 volunteers, including YLS attorneys and DSS staff, converged on the DSS office in Baltimore City to initiate the Extreme Office Makeover project with the intention of making those sterile and austere rooms more friendly and conducive to these difficult situations. Thanks to their efforts, the re-painted rooms are now filled with color, as well as new carpets, furniture and toys.
“It was wonderful to see the number of attorneys who were more than willing to spend their Saturday making these rooms bright, cheerful and friendly for the children served by DSS,” says former PAC Chair Alice Chong. “Since we received so much positive feedback and support, we are going to continue these types of public service projects.”
The YLS Public Service Committee and Public Awareness Committee teamed up to solicit volunteers and donations, with Chong, Tate and YLS/PAC member Sidney Butcher coordinating the project by organizing volunteers and procuring supplies. The combined efforts resulted in the improvement of three rooms, as well as two hallways leading to those rooms.
“As attorneys, we often see people when they are at the low points in their lives, be it getting a divorce, battling for custody or just trying to keep a roof over their heads,” says Tate. “While it is important to help them through the legal struggles, it is also good to give back in other ways. The DSS Makeover project was just one of those many ways to help. Being able to provide an inviting, cheerful space for the kids who are visiting with their parents while they are going through the difficulties of foster care is just a small way to show them that the community cares.”
“A lot of times, we don’t know who benefits from our services,” says Butcher. “This is an opportunity for them to directly impact children’s lives. Many things were donated from throughout the community from those who couldn’t actively participate, but still found a way to help.”
Thanks to the ABA Subgrant, YLS is currently planning future dates for the Extreme Makeover Project. Other hands-on projects undertaken by YLS volunteers have included the Special Olympics Polar Bear Plunge, the Prisoner Storybook Project and Habitat for Humanity. YLS also actively helps members of the military in the Wills for Heroes Project. This year, PAC has accompanied YLS in some of the projects. Together, the two groups provide an outpouring of volunteers looking to better their communities.
“Other than serving as a support network for our members, public service is one of the founding purposes of the organized bar, and the Young Lawyers Section has always been proud to lead in that effort,” Barron adds. “In addition to expanding our public service activities with Extreme Makeover, we are exploring ways to harness the energy of our attorney volunteers to provide more organized pro bono legal services.”