The ELCA Outreach Center in Kenosha, Wis., has worked with individuals and families since 1997, providing job search assistance, personal care programs, youth camps and more. One client’s need led them to add a free legal advice service, which assisted more than 300 clients in 2018.
Karl Erickson, the center’s executive director, and Megan Burgess, a paralegal and the Free Legal Advice Clinic coordinator, each said this newest ministry strengthens community connections.
“We started out as a ministry of Grace Lutheran Church,” Erickson said, explaining that the congregation saw a lot of kids playing in the neighborhood so they started a clothing closet and after-school program to support them and their families.
Other area congregations soon joined in the ministry, including Holy Nativity, Lord of Life, Spirit Alive, St. John, St. Mary, St. Paul and Trinity.
“With the increased awareness of the Outreach Center, donations increased,” Erickson said.
This gave the opportunity, Burgess added, to “focus more on the adults with employment help, the clothing closet and the GED (General Education Development) classes.”
Another opportunity presented itself when a person facing eviction asked the center for help with legal questions. “It planted the seed that there needs to be somewhere for low-income clients to go to get their questions answered,” she said.
Erickson next shared that need with partner congregations. After a “temple talk” at St. Mary, he said Mary Wagner, a Kenosha judge, ran down the aisle to talk to him. She later put out the word to the local bar association, which agreed to participate in the program.
On Sept. 2, 2011, the Free Legal Advice Clinic welcomed its first six clients.
Burgess said the clinic first focused on family cases, guardianship, debt and renter’s rights, and expanded to include immigration and driver’s license recovery.
“The clients are so grateful,” Burgess said. “I have some who come in and they’re pretty advanced, have done their research and have one or two questions. Others are overwhelmed and don’t know where to start.”
Attorneys like Miles Hartley have seen the program grow firsthand. When he received an email about the need for volunteer attorneys, Hartley said he was hesitant at first. As a newer attorney, he wondered if it was something he would be able to do, but he said he “quickly saw the need for the program.”
Burgess said many attorneys kept coming back to offer their services even though they were busy building their practices and careers.
“It all goes back to building relationships and giving people a way to get involved.”
In 2014 the Outreach Center began “Lunch, Learn and the Law” programs, where anyone from the community can come to learn about different legal topics. And, in 2017, it was approved as a site for continuing legal education credits for the attorneys.
On July 20, 2018, the clinic expanded its services to nearby Racine, and Burgess said there are plans to bring “Lunch, Learn and the Law” events there this year.
The nonprofit Outreach Center, including its legal advice service, receives support from congregations, local businesses, fundraisers, organizations such as the Siebert Lutheran Foundation and Thrivent Financial, and secular nonprofits, including the Racine Community Foundation.
“It all goes back to building relationships and giving people a way to get involved,” Erickson said.
Wagner, who helped first spread the word about the Free Legal Service Clinic, said she’s moved by the diversity of people who attend the annual fundraiser banquet and who are united in support of this service.
The clinic bridges divides, she said, adding, “This outlet gives accurate information on legal issues and directs persons to the proper outlet to resolve their issues.”
Hartley said, “Having a negative experience in the past with the legal system can be a barrier to underserved populations accessing the legal system in the future. The clinic lessens that intimidation and that fear factor.”
Serving with the legal clinic, he said, has helped him better understand those underserved areas. “It’s helped me gain perspective and empathy,” he added. “The practice of law is different from what you learn in school.”
Being part of the Outreach Center also means that legal clients can get connected to other services, if needed. Hartley remembers an instance when “the legal problem being solved opened up other doors in health and education” for a client.
The clinic can even connect clients to the church. “I’ve had legal service clients who come back and attend our Bible study,” Burgess said. “By the time they leave, they feel like there’s hope.”