Across the country, dozens of legal aid, pro bono and court programs are tapping into an innovative resource to help address unmet legal needs and increase the capacity of the justice community: national service volunteers. Through the federally funded
AmeriCorps network of programs, volunteers engage in intensive service – usually full-time for a year – and apply their skills and ideals towards meeting critical community needs. In return, volunteers receive a stipend and/or educational award, valuable professional development experience, and the opportunity to make a lasting impact on underserved communities.
|Sam Alpert (kneeling) and other VISTAs in Montana |
AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps*VISTA volunteers have played a key role in access to justice technology projects, including Pro Bono Net programs. VISTA volunteers have developed community education resources for LawHelp.org websites in Montana, Minnesota and elsewhere, and promoted them through outreach campaigns. In some states, volunteers have used their own language skills or recruited other bilingual volunteers to develop non-English resources for statewide websites.
Several legal aid programs have used VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) volunteers to launch interactive document assembly projects, often using Pro Bono Net’s LawHelp Interactive service. Through the California JusticeCorps program, an AmeriCorps-funded initiative, more than 250 university students are trained each year to serve in overburdened self-help centers. Under the supervision of an attorney, JusticeCorps members conduct front-desk triage, refer litigants to appropriate resources, and help them complete legal forms, including LawHelp Interactive documents.
VISTA volunteers have also played an important role in LiveHelp, Pro Bono Net’s chat-based, real-time support service for LawHelp sites. In several states, VISTA members serve as LiveHelp navigators, helping LawHelp users locate essential legal resources and services in their community. The launch of LawHelp.org/NY’s highly successful bilingual LiveHelp project was managed by Nate Treadwell, an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow at Legal Assistance of Western New York, who developed partnerships with area law schools to engage student volunteers as LiveHelp navigators.
Pro Bono Net is fortunate to have had several talented and dedicated VISTA members among our ranks in recent years. Thanks to a partnership with Montana Legal Services Association, we’ve had three Helena-based VISTA members helping to build our national LiveHelp program. Another New York-based volunteer supported Pro Bono Net’s Immigration Advocates Network and other immigration initiatives during the past year.
The recently passed Serve America Act will increase the number of national service volunteers nationwide to 250,000, up from 75,000. For more information about national service programs, visit the Corporation for National and Community Service.
For many volunteers, their placement is a unique opportunity to work on the front lines of access to justice while experiencing life in a new setting. “Working for Pro Bono Net in Montana has been an amazing experience, professionally and personally,” says Sam Alpert, a current VISTA volunteer on the LiveHelp project. “It enabled me to witness firsthand how technology can increase access to justice in a state where a trip to the nearest legal aid office could take hours.”
The experience also gives volunteers valuable exposure to poverty law and community development work that they carry with them to new horizons, whether in the legal field or beyond. "As a VISTA, I witnessed some of the most exciting recent developments in the delivery of legal services,” says Jordan Bergsten, a former LiveHelp VISTA with Pro Bono Net who now attends Boalt Law School at UC Berkeley. “I left my position feeling I had peered into the future of the national legal landscape, encouraged by the capacity of legal organizations to resolve social challenges."