2019 in Review: One Year in a Legal Aid Organization

2019 in Review: One Year in a Legal Aid Organization

Joining the GLS staff in November of 2018 was a big change for me. Even though I have ten years of experience working in nonprofits, this organization is much larger than I was used to, and I hadn’t had any exposure to law since studying criminal justice in undergrad. But during my interview for the open Resource Development position, I got a feeling in my gut. I felt a camaraderie with the people I interviewed with, and the office atmosphere made me feel like good work was taking place here, work that I wanted to be a part of.

Tara, the HR coordinator, called me a day later with an offer. It would be my job to get communications back up and running, which included the newsletter, social media, and managing the website. It seemed like it would be an easy job. I started the week before Thanksgiving and the admin team’s first big challenge came when the current grant writer quit. I had several years of experience writing grants and stepped in immediately. That’s when I realized this would not be the easy job I thought it would be.

By February, I was knee-deep in grant writing. There were about fifteen grant applications due within two or three months. I was also busy with communications. Our press releases started getting picked up by news agencies and the Tampa Bay Times asked to interview our staff about the birth certificate and immigration and family law programs. Agency-wide, GLS had its first annual Black History Month celebration, began new grant programs, and participated in an in-service where I taught about trauma-informed care.

I was buried until June. That’s when our finance manager announced he would be leaving for an incredible opportunity at PricewaterhouseCoopers. A financial manager is crucial at a heavily grant-funded agency like ours. While we were excited for him to take the next step in his career, we were also terrified of not finding someone to fill the position. That fear soon became reality: we experienced a funding hold-up and had to wait to fill the position.

At that point, it seemed like our little admin team might spontaneously combust. Instead, all of my coworkers leaned in to help. We split up the finance duties, most of which fell on the shoulders of our Executive Director, Chief Financial Officer, and Administrative Assistant. The next few months were tough. For several weeks each one of my team members was out of the office – one was moving, one had to have emergency surgery, one got sick and then another. I look back at it now and marvel at the hardiness of this little admin team and how, even with the stress they all faced, they found a way to get through it.

It is this hardiness that, I believe, defines all of us at GLS. The work here is not easy. It’s hard to tell people “no” but due to funding restrictions, we can’t help everyone who walks in our doors. Attorneys can’t guarantee a positive case outcome. The work takes time and energy – the wheels of justice can move slowly and our clients don’t always have that time. Most of our attorneys make half or even a third of what they could make in private practice. They stay here because they believe in their work and want to help people.

The fall brought many firsts for GLS. We opened a new office in Lealman, held our first Highwaymen Happy Hour and Networking Reception – the first professional event I’ve ever taken the lead in planning – and GLS was an honoree for the One Tampa Bay Awards. My admin coworkers got through the end of the year reporting, even though it wasn’t pretty. Things seemed to even out, as much as they can in a non-profit.

Now, at the end of the year, I’m reflecting on all the lessons I’ve learned. My supervisor, Tammy, would probably say I’ve learned to pay closer attention to character counts and to better read grant directions (I hate reading directions – don’t tell me what to do!). I would add that I’ve learned new cultural norms and traditions, how to get through situations that overwhelm me, and a million things about the law that I never really wanted to know. While I have struggled to adjust to the size of the organization and find my place, I’ve also gained immense respect for the work my colleagues do.

As an author and storyteller, I get frustrated when I can’t accurately convey the amount of passion and dedication I see at GLS on an everyday basis. Our attorneys experience success after success; they get frustrated with the system; they find unique solutions to problems; they save lives. That is what I want to share with you, here at the end of a very long 2019.

My top case highlights of the year:

  • Consumer Law: Margaret, an elderly woman, was scammed into buying a faulty AC. The GLS team helped her get her money back including everything she spent on fixing the unit.
  • Housing: “Mary,” a victim of domestic violence was being forced out of her housing by her abuser, illegally. GLS got her lawsuit dismissed and helped her avoid damage to her rental record, saving her from homelessness.
  • Family law: “Hailey,” a victim of severe domestic violence came to GLS seeking a divorce from her husband so she and her children could live free of abuse. GLS represented Hailey at the final hearing, where she obtained a divorce and restoration of her name.
  • Immigration: “Alex,” who was a victim of human trafficking, hadn’t seen his family in over ten years. GLS obtained him and his family Visas and was at the airport to unite them.
  • Financial Stability: “Steve” and “William” came to GLS for assistance placing each other in their wills. Partners of 30 years, they never married because of federal rules, and were worried about being kept apart in their final moments.

While all the stories resonated with me, the story of Steve and William made me cry at my desk. Many LGBTQ elders live without the legal rights their heterosexual peers have. They live without the support of their families. For many, there is no one to help them when they or their partners get sick, when they become widowed or experience loss. As a gay person with little familial support, I sometimes fear there will be no one there for me when I am older and in need. But seeing the work done here at GLS, at our partner agencies, and all throughout our service area, brings me hope.

A big thank you to all of the GLS staff for giving hope to those who have lost it and for giving me a year filled with learning, appreciation, and meaning.

– Chelsea


May In-Service Day

GLS at Pride!

Black History Month Celebration

Updated GLS Tree in the St. Pete Office

Immigration Team at our Hispanic Heritage Celebration and Lealman Opening