The Common Ground of Volunteerism

AmericCorps and The Pro Bono Project have something in common in their missions: they help to strengthen and move communities forward, while providing an educational/training component for their member volunteers. So, it’s no surprise that when Executive Director Jenny Rizzo-Choi wanted to find someone who could bring a variety of skills to fill in some of the non-legal gaps around The Project, she chose to access an AmeriCorps volunteer.

 AmeriCorps' Siri Alay

AmeriCorps' Siri Alay

Many of you may have already met our AmeriCorps volunteer Siri Alay, who arrived in September and comes to us from her hometown of Chattanooga, TN.

She graduated this past May with a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

But, she is no stranger to New Orleans, having attended Tulane University for her first year of college as a National Merit Scholarship and Tulane Presidential Scholarship recipient.

During that year, her desire to serve and lead was evident in her work with Tulane’s chapters of Habitat for Humanity (Secretary), Students Organizing Against Racism (SOAR) (Secretary/Treasurer), Tulane for Service Workers’ Rights and served as a Tulane/Newcomb College Senator representing the School of Science and Engineering. After transferring to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC), she continued demonstrating her commitment to volunteerism as a member of UTC’s chapter of Ecological Decisions for a Global Environment (EDGE). With a passion for community service, joining AmeriCorps was a natural choice for Siri.

Many times people talk about making a change or say they wished a government service worked better. Joining AmeriCorps gave me the opportunity to actually begin making that change. I believe that our successes come from not only our individual efforts but also from each person in the community around us who helped provide the means for us to achieve those successes. Therefore, I believe we all have an obligation at some point in our lives when we have the means to give back to the communities who supported us and helped us grow. I could see no better way to give back, while also learning valuable job and life skills after college, than AmeriCorps,” says Siri.

Having spent time in New Orleans, Siri was delighted to find herself in the position of joining The Project for a year through the AmeriCorps program, which pays her a small stipend that covers her basic living expenses and makes her eligible at the end of her service year for an educational grant.

“I had experience in the legal field and had worked with several anti-racism and criminal justice reform organizations and projects in New Orleans and my hometown of Chattanooga, TN. I have always wanted to examine the way race, class, and gender affect those who are going through the legal system. I thought that serving at the Pro Bono Project would be an amazing opportunity to learn how civil legal aid works at the ground level,” Siri continued.

She jumped in when she arrived in September, initially helping to coordinate the volunteer attorneys who work at the 24th JDC Self Help Desk, and bringing her enthusiasm and organizational skills to the Justice For All Ball.

“Siri is a fast-learner and her enthusiasm is contagious. She’s been invaluable since the moment she arrived jumping in to help the volunteer attorneys at the 24th JDC Self Help. She has great organizational skills, understands the big picture, as well as the smallest details. There’s lot of work to do here at The Project that falls outside of providing civil legal services to clients and Siri is helping us to get that work done,” explains Executive Director Jenny Rizzo-Choi.

At the 24th JDC Self-Help Desk, Siri works with volunteer attorneys to give self-represented litigants the resources they need, including legal information and assistance filling out forms.

As she has learned, there is a substantial population that does not qualify for civil legal aid because they are slightly over the income requirement and are unable to afford an attorney. Therefore, they represent themselves on certain civil matters, such as in divorce and custody hearings and the self-help desk assists those self-represented litigants. 

As Siri continues to settle in, she’s learning about several of The Project’s clinics and opportunities to serve the community, such as the Medical Legal Partnership at Daughters of Charity and bankruptcy clinics at Delgado and St. Peter Claver. In addition, she’s researching additional programming and volunteer opportunities, as well as how other civil legal aid organizations across the country operate and whether there’s anything from these organizations that are applicable to The Project.

“This is a tremendous learning opportunity to discover how sustainable nonprofits work and how to make our current and future programs sustainable, as well. I’ve also learned about the inner workings of a nonprofit work in general - about grant research and funding, data collecting, troubleshooting programs, marketing and publicity, and volunteer recruiting and coordinating. Serving at the Pro Bono Project has been an incredible opportunity and a goldmine of information,” explains Siri.

In just this short time, Siri is discovering how crucial organizations that provide civil legal aid are to the communities they serve – how important they are in giving every citizen equal representation. Unlike criminal cases, the government does not promise a speedy trial or a right to counsel in civil cases. Organizations like The Project are vital in filling in that void in representation. Even so, she already sees how big the need is – organizations such as The Project can only help a limited amount of the people who cannot afford an attorney, and for certain cases which can be complicated, wait times can be long. (See Jenny's Thoughts for October [add link])

“Since I’ve begun serving here, I sincerely believe that every person working in the legal field should do pro bono work at some point. There are many people who need the help and there are not enough pro bono volunteers to provide it. There are a plethora of cases, so attorneys and other legal professionals are usually able to find one that fits their specialty and their existing skills. Even if an attorney doesn’t work in an area of the law that is handled by The Project, training and mentoring by experienced lawyers is provided,” she says.

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With 10 more months to go, there is no limit to what Siri will learn as she continues to dig into The Project and what it provides to volunteers, clients and the community at large. It has already begun to shape her perspective about the value of volunteerism inherent in the AmeriCorps program.

“Living on such a small stipend is a struggle, but professionally it is extremely rewarding. I encourage anyone who wants to go into the nonprofit or public sector to seriously consider joining AmeriCorps; the amount of real world learning is unparalleled. Even those who are not planning to stay in the public service or the nonprofit sector will benefit greatly from this program. Several of the skills I am learning here are also transferable to the private sector, such as networking, coordinating personnel, and public relations work. There is also an educational stipend we receive at the end of our service term and some AmeriCorps programs offer noncompetitive eligibility for certain public sector jobs,” Siri says.

In this month where we are applauding the national pro bono efforts of attorneys and other legal professionals, The Pro Bono Project is proud to share its the mission of service to our community through volunteers with our AmeriCorps volunteer Siri Alay, and the more than one million AmeriCorps members nationwide.