A cornerstone of a SLU LAW education is the ability to provide service to others, while gaining practical, hands-on legal training. On a recent Saturday morning, students and faculty embodied the Jesuit mission to serve those who have provided the epitome of service to our country.
On Nov. 3, 2012 Saint Louis University School of Law participated in the annual Stand Down for Homeless Veterans in downtown St. Louis. Now in its 17th year, the event provides services to homeless veterans such as food, shelter, clothing, health screenings, Veteran's Affairs (VA) and Social Security benefits counseling, and referrals to a variety of other necessary services, such as housing, employment and substance abuse treatment.
Led by Assistant Clinical Professor Brendan Roediger and Assistant Professor Yvette Liebesman, 22 SLU LAW students volunteered their time and legal training to assist approximately 80 veterans.
"The vast majority of veterans come to the Stand Down because of minor outstanding warrants from traffic tickets or ‘quality of life' offenses such as loitering," said Roediger. "We also see a fair number of family law, consumer law and VA benefits cases. The cases are then divided between the Clinic and local attorney Paul Simms to resolve."
For the student volunteers, the day's experience reminded them of the need to take care of those that have given so much of themselves in defense and service to the country.
"Many of them just need a little help," said Chelsea Harris, a third-year student. "This event was yet another reason that I am proud to be a SLU LAW student and be given the opportunity to help people in need while solidifying my legal skills."
Veterans told the volunteers stories about their service and personal lives. Even when discussing their hardships, they spoke of hope and optimism for the future.
"I think the importance of the Stand Down is one of the great goals about SLU LAW: to engage and assist the people in our community," said Ainsley Bochniak, a third-year student. "I think it is very important for students and professors alike to stay connected with the community and remember that our legal education can truly do some good."
SLU LAW has embraced veterans in another way this year, with the development of the Veteran Students Association (VSA). The mission of the VSA is to foster a community, within the larger School of Law community, that is supportive of former, current and future military members, and their dependents, family and friends.
As a military veteran with 11 ½ years of service, third-year student Diane Todd was motivated to start the VSA to bring the military bond and support system into the law school for students and their families when their military service pulls them apart temporarily. There are approximately 20 veterans currently attending SLU LAW.
"I recognize how encouraging it can be to know you have a group of people that have something in common with you rooting for you to succeed and to help pick you up again when you are down," said Todd, Master Sergeant (E-7) Air Force and active duty member of the Utah Air National Guard."I thought the law school needed that for veterans and for their families."
A second goal of the VSA is to assist students to achieve the training and accreditation they need to effectively assist homeless veterans apply for disability benefits.
Many veterans find it difficult to get the disability benefits they are entitled to for injuries sustained during service. Homeless veterans are at high risk of not receiving those benefits for a plethora of reasons: lack of knowledge, no phone or address at which they may be reached throughout the disability claims process, inability to make a claim due to traumatic brain injury or other mentally disabling injury or a lack of assistance to properly make the claim.
"The intent is to provide a sorely needed service to homeless veterans, in a sustainable manner that can be carried through from year to year, as the claims and award process can take several years in some cases," said Todd. "We also want to teach students valuable skills that they can carry through practice whether for pro bono representation or for practice of veteran disability law."
Though it's a new and small organization, VSA has kept quite busy in its first semester. In addition to members who volunteered for the Stand Down, the group held a yellow-ribbon event, chartered a party bus for organization awareness (and to let off a bit of steam) and are in the initial stages of organizing a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder awareness series. They also hope to start the training process to become accredited veteran disability claims representatives in spring 2013, with training open to all SLU students, regardless of degree path.
The School of Law continues to foster a supportive community environment and provides tangible opportunities for students to see the law - and the power of what the law can do - by placing them in positions to help real people in real situations. And, in a small way, to say thank you to the men and women who so bravely serve and served our country.