Twenty William & Mary Law School students are choosing to spend their spring break, March 1 through 9, wielding hammers, reviewing contracts, and working with community organizers rather than slathering on SPF 15 and reading the latest best-selling novel. The W&M chapter of the national Student Hurricane Network has organized the trip to offer continued aid to the flood- and hurricane-ravaged Gulf region.
Students heading to New Orleans include (front, from left) Sarah Miller, C. Genevieve Jenkins, Chanel Gray, Kathleen Parks, Ambria Witt, (back, from left) Myron McClees, Nicole Green, Geraldine Doetzer, Latoya Asia, Aaron Larrimore, Whitney Price, Rob Poggenklass, and Chantel Mills. (Absent from photo are Jennifer Bacon, Satya Baumgartel, Alex Chasick, Megan Hay, Sarah Landres, Kalin Locke, and Megan Tumi.)
Latoya Asia and Jennifer Bacon, both 2Ls, have been leading the charge, with help from 1L Rob Poggenklass. The group will rent two 12-passenger vans, drive straight through to Louisiana, stay in a local bed & breakfast in the Garden District, and head to orientation on Sunday evening, March 2.
Jennifer, a Tulane University graduate and New Orleans resident for more than five years, has been providing fellow travelers with weekly e-mail updates on her city, as well as the variety of jobs available for them, places of interest, Internet links with maps and a host of other information. She is spearheading fundraising efforts, too. Any monies not raised prior to the trip will be funded out of the students' pockets. Latoya has handled many of the travel logistics, fundraising, and budget concerns, and she and Rob are gathering the necessary health forms, emergency contact information, and liability waivers and releases required by SHN and W&M. Rob also wrote the press releases that each student can send to their hometown newspapers as well as communiques for the Law School's student publications and the local press.
"I watched the horrible images of Hurricane Katrina on TV in total disbelief," Rob said. "I didn't think things like that were still possible in the greatest country in the world. It made me sick to see all those people suffering like that. I came to law school because I feel like I owe my country something - I want to give back. When this opportunity came up, I jumped at it, because this is a chance to do something, to really make a difference in people's lives."
Myron McClees, 1L, knew he wanted to go to the Gulf area to help before he came to law school, but heard about SHN from 3L Sarah Landres, who is the junior partner in his Legal Skills Program law firm and very involved in SHN.
"I vividly remember watching the news reports that finally emerged from New Orleans, and feeling utterly helpless," Myron said. "I, like many Americans, gave money toward the effort, but still felt that I hadn't done enough. I come from a hands-on, activist background, and putting money in another's hands seemed like a minor effort toward a major problem. It was as if I had relinquished my own responsibility in seeing that the problems are resolved. So, I was immediately interested in the Student Hurricane Network as soon as I heard about it."
Sarah was instrumental in getting the SHN up and running at W&M. Her mother is from Louisiana and Sarah and her family had been in New Orleans two weeks before Hurricane Katrina for a family reunion. She started law school August 29, 2005, and said she, "spent the whole first week of school glued to the television, trying to comprehend what was happening to New Orleans and the Gulf."
Sarah had a high school friend who knew one of the students who helped start SHN nationally and she became involved the summer before her 2L year, attending meetings and idea sessions hosted by SHN at the Equal Justice Works career fair. Then, she and fellow 2L Alex Chasick worked to begin a chapter at W&M Law School. In fall 2007, they realized they needed to involve their fellow law students. Sarah will be part of this year's group as well, and although she's accepted a job as an assistant public defender in New Hampshire after her May '08 graduation, she plans to stay active with SHN via their alumni program.
"Luckily for W&M," Sarah said, "there are some pretty amazing, committed first- and second-year law students who stepped into leadership roles. Latoya wrote a proposal to Dean Reveley, who generously provided us with some funding for the spring '08 trip. Jen Bacon went on the SHN trip last spring so she has been a great contact with the national SHN group."
Latoya also became interested in SHN through Sarah's efforts.
"It was perfect to me because, in college, I was a volunteer with an organization called Alternative Spring Break," Latoya said. "A group of us went to various locations to do service work for two spring breaks in a row. I think that going to New Orleans to take part in service projects during spring break is a necessary obligation that we all should satisfy." She met with Sarah several times, then, with the help of Associate Dean Rob Kaplan, wrote a proposal to submit to Dean Reveley, which included a budget for this year's trip. Latoya knew that future trips could be handled through fundraising, but felt it was crucial to get a foundation of support for a trip this year.
"The Dean, of course, responded with amazing support," she said. "He was thrilled that there were students who wanted to go to New Orleans to assist with some of the many problems that still threaten the area today, and he agreed to financially assist us in our trip. After the proposal's success, we sent out emails and flyers to increase awareness of SHN and get people interested in coming to meetings. So far, we have about 20 people who will be traveling to New Orleans for spring break service!"
Jen Bacon, who had just begun her second year as a teacher in New Orleans when Katrina hit the city, has been in contact with the national SHN on behalf of her fellow travelers. She said that the SHN is specifically looking for those law students who are interested in certain specializations like community organizing, immigration and environmental law, those who speak foreign languages especially Spanish, and also those with labor skills. SHN organizers will then try to place students where their skills will be most useful.
"Some students may work in the Public Defender's Office, others with community groups and still others on home building or repair projects," Jen said.
The Student Hurricane Network has been in action for more than two years and was formed in 2005 in response to the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Dedicated to providing legal and physical assistance to the Gulf Coast region, more than 3,000 students from 110 U.S. law schools have responded to the need in the past two years. Collectively, SHN has added a tremendous investigative research capacity to the justice advocates in the affected regions. In addition to the spring break efforts, SHN affords opportunities for law students to help in other ways - in winter break trips, long-distance research projects, and opportunities to educate people in local communities nationwide. SHN has a student advisory board, a financial team, pro bono liaisons, alumni and web support. They also have a pilot program called Match Makers for Justice, Law Students and Katrina Survivors Working Together for Recovery (M4J). M4J hopes to help residents help themselves by connecting them with law student advocates, and training them to effectively navigate government organizations to access quality jobs, education, health care, and housing. SHN partners with a host of national groups like the Equal Justice Center, ACLU, NAACP of Louisiana, the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court and many others.
"By going on the trip and volunteering," Myron said, "I am of the belief that I can show strength in an area where I formerly felt helpless. Marshall-Wythe does a fantastic job in making an entering 1L truly feel important, powerful, and responsible. I think that this trip is in part an extension of the ideals initially imbued in us from the beginning of 'Law Camp'. I wanted to go and help in the Gulf Region before coming to William & Mary Law School, but now the task seems less daunting. I am confident that I have the power to make a difference in a place that truly needs our collective support."
The Law School couldn't be prouder of the group, Dean Reveley said. "We talk to our students on their very first day of law school about what it means to be a citizen lawyer -- that their legal educations can be put to great use for the public good. It is wonderful to see the students' commitment to helping people in the Gulf region."
If you would like to make a tax-deductible gift to help the students' fundraising efforts, please send your donation to the Office of Development & Alumni Affairs, William & Mary Law School, POB 8795, Williamsburg, VA 23187-8795. Please make checks payable to the "Marshall-Wythe School of Law Foundation" and note "SHN Donation" on the memo line. If you have questions, please contact the Office of Development and Alumni Affairs at 757-221-3795 (firstname.lastname@example.org).